Fort Wagner and the One Gallant Rush: How It Matters and What Matters More

FtWagner

Source: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

In a few days, on July 18, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War will roll around to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s failed attempt to storm Fort Wagner, South Carolina, made famous for current generations by the 1989 movie, Glory. On the one hand, the 54th’s attack on Fort Wagner, with the unit suffering 45 percent casualties, was one of many futile frontal assaults in the American Civil War, as tactics failed to keep up with the growing lethality of weaponry developed in the first half of the 19th century. On the other hand, if the 54th Massachusetts did not win in strictly military terms on July 18, 1863, they won a costly moral victory for their race, by proving black men would fight and die as bravely of white men in similarly adverse circumstances, when detractors had long claimed African Americans could not be trained as soldiers and would flee from the battlefield at the first hint of danger.

What is often forgotten is that the “One Gallant Rush” at Fort Wagner was the last of three engagements involving black troops in the spring and summer of 1863, their first use in combat since late October 1862 when the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry clashed with Confederate guerrillas at Island Mound, Missouri.

The first came on May 27, 1863, when black Louisiana troops, mostly free men of color from New Orleans, fighting for an ungrateful Union General Nathaniel Banks, participated in an ill-conceived frontal assault on Confederate positions at Port Hudson, Louisiana. The attack failed, but produced the first martyred black Union hero, Andre Cailloux, a captain in this pioneering unit, which had black officers (Banks was in the process of purging them when the engagement occurred, but many of them were still around to fight  at Port Hudson). Cailloux was killed bravely leading his company in the attack, and his body was later recovered and returned to New Orleans where thousands of people attended his funeral.

Eleven days later, on June 7, 1863, black units on the periphery of Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, fighting with white Union soldiers of the 23rd Iowa Infantry, successfully fended off an attack by Confederate forces in Madison Parish, Louisiana, at what would become known as the Battle of Milliken’s Bend. Although the engagement was essentially won by fire support from the Union gunboat Choctaw on the Mississippi, black soldiers held their ground at the river’s bank, if for no other reason than they had nowhere left to retreat and a gunboat at their rear to pummel the attacking Confederates. But neither did they cravenly surrender, and this battle as in the case of Port Hudson and Fort Wagner was cited by supporters of black enlistment in the Union Army that African Americans were willing and able to fight and die as bravely as white soldiers.

These three battles collectively did much to silence critics who believed black men unfit to join the Union Army. But just as interesting as these early battles by African-American soldiers and ultimately more important was the impact of military service on their lives. This was something that was quickly apparent even during the war itself, as powerless chattel became armed warriors. Harper’s Weekly noted such one case, in their issue of July 4, 1863, in an article titled, “A Typical Negro.” The article focused on a slave named Gordon, and featured a large engraving, most memorable for the mass of scars from whippings on his back.

whipped-slaveSource: Harper’s Weekly, 4 July 1863

The engraving was based on a photograph taken in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, by a local photographer, William D. McPherson and his associate, “Mr. Oliver.” It can be seen immediately below.

GordonPhoto

Source: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Harper’s Weekly described Gordon’s story in the article that accompanied the engraving above and two others below. It read:

[The first engraving] represents the man as he entered our lines, with clothes torn and covered with mud and dirt from his long race through the swamps and bayous, chased as he had been for days and nights by his master with several neighbors and a pack of blood-hounds; another shows him as he underwent the surgical examination previous to being mustered into the service —his back furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas-day last; and the third represents him in United States uniform, bearing the musket and prepared for duty.

This negro displayed unusual intelligence and energy. In order to foil the scent of the blood-hounds who were chasing him he took from his plantation onions, which he carried in his pockets. After crossing each creek or swamp he rubbed his body freely with these onions, and thus, no doubt, frequently threw the dogs off the scent.

At one time in Louisiana he served our troops as guide, and on one expedition was unfortunately taken prisoner by the rebels, who, infuriated beyond measure, tied him up and beat him, leaving him for dead. He came to life, however, and once more made his escape to our lines.

The photo of Gordon above was used in an earlier post on this blog to illustrate the motives of slaves for fleeing plantations to seek sanctuary with the Union Army, as the scars on his back are powerful testimony to the system of torment used to maintain slave discipline in the antebellum South. The article on Gordon in Harper’s Weekly discusses at length on the methods of physical punishment faced by slaves on plantations in Louisiana before freedom came, many of them quite sadistic in nature.

Yet for slaves like Gordon that joined the Union Army service their service was a transformative experience. They went from a short time from powerless chattels subject to horrific punishment (and even death) to strapping soldiers in what was effectively an army of liberation. While constrained by military discipline in the application of their new power and authority, the change was apparent to observers who saw them when they entered the army and then saw them again after they had been military service for some time. Indeed, this transformation became the subject of federal propaganda promoting the service of African Americans in the Union Army. A good example of this material comes from the article on Gordon in the July 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, with engravings of him before and after he entered military service, described above and which can be seen immediately below.

GordonBeforeAfter

Harper’s Weekly, 4 July 1863

An even better example of such “before and after” pictures of slaves becoming soldiers is Hubbard Pryor who served in the 44th U.S. Colored Troops.

HubbardPryorNational Archives, Washington, D.C.

These pictures were taken on October 10, 1864, the first purporting to depict Hubbard Pryor before his enlistment, a slave like Gordon above dressed in ragged clothes, and the second after his enlistment as a smartly uniformed and armed Union soldier. Yet the staged nature of these pictures is made especially poignant by the fact that three days after they were taken, the 44th U.S. Colored Infantry in Dalton, Georgia, was overwhelmed by Confederate forces under John Bell Hood (on their ill-fated invasion of Tennessee after being forced out of Atlanta by the William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee). Pryor became a prisoner and was stripped of his uniform by Hood’s men symbolically returning him to his status as a slave. He remained in Confederate hands until he was freed in May 1865 near Griffin, Georgia, making his way to a Union garrison in Rome, Georgia, looking reportedly worse on his arrival there than in the now famous staged “before” photo. After his discharge from the army, he returned home to Polk County, Georgia, where he married, raised a family, and lived quietly until his death in 1890.

Yet sometimes propaganda can be a way of communicating a version of the truth, and there is much truth to the staged images of Gordon, Hubbard Pryor, and others like them. Black soldiers, despite the dangers and pitfalls, often did benefit from their time in the Union Army. I examined these benefits, both during and after the Civil War in my 1996 dissertation, revised for publication as After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Kansas, 2004). In this book, I discussed such wartime benefits as learning to read and write (quite significant for illiterate slaves), the chance to gain leadership skills as non-commissioned officers, political training fighting for equal pay (and against other indignities), and the psychological boost to their manhood of the dignity of being soldiers.

These benefits continued to accrue after the Civil War. As I write in the epilogue to After the Glory:

The Civil War left a significant positive legacy in general for the black soldiers that survived the conflict, one that validated their manhood.  They enjoyed a privileged position compared to other African Americans in the postwar period.  The 1890 census found a disproportionate percentage of them in the North and in the growing urban centers of the South, and as a group they enjoyed more prosperity compared to other African Americans.  Veterans were widely admired in the black community, and their contribution to Union victory helped soften the attitude of many white Northerners toward them as well, especially former soldiers.  African-American veterans also benefited from the largess of the federal government to Union veterans and their families, particularly in the form of military pensions.

Certainly, the picture for black Civil War veterans was not entirely rosy after the Civil War. As with white soldiers, some African Americans returned home sick, disabled, or psychologically broken, in many cases never becoming whole again. Even if they made it back healthy, some black veterans became targets after the war for white Southerners angry at the way white supremacy was in tatters, especially given the leadership roles ex-soldiers often assumed in the postwar black community. The citizenship and political rights they helped win for their race also proved fleeting, as Jim Crow and disfranchisement spread throughout the post-Reconstruction South. Finally, veterans who lived long enough saw the memory of their wartime role in the Civil War increasingly forgotten in the larger society.

But unquestionably, collectively black men who had Union as soldiers and sailors benefited more than they suffered as a result of their wartime service. So, when commemorating famous events in the history of African-American military participation in the Civil War, please remember that as crucial as they were, a less dramatic but much more significant transformation was occurring in the lives of black Union soldiers that played out during and after the war, and which was ultimately much more important than the “One Gallant Rush” at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863.

Sources: 1) http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/july/whipped-slave.htm; 2) Donald R. Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 2004).

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Enslaving the Free: The Gettysburg Campaign

SlavesBeingDrivenSouth

“Negroes Driven South By The Rebel Officers,” Harper’s Weekly, November 8, 1862. While not African Americans kidnapped by Confederate forces in June 1863, it presents an image something like witnesses saw in southern Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign.

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The sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg campaign has been under way for a while now with Civil War enthusiasts eagerly remembering the moments notable and not in the most celebrated campaign of the Civil War as they happened 150 years ago this month. Their commemoration is just about to culminate, of course, with the anniversary of the battle itself in the next three days, and no doubt carry on for weeks more as they remember its aftermath.

One of the things that makes the Gettysburg campaign memorable, besides leading to the biggest battle of the war, is that it was without a doubt the largest incursion of Confederate forces into a state that had been free soil before the Civil War. Specifically, of course, they invaded Pennsylvania, which was home to a small but noteworthy black population (nearly 57,000 in 1860). Southern Pennsylvania had long been an enticing destination for Eastern slaves seeking to escape bondage, as it was the first free state north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But with Maryland to its south and other slave states nearby slave catchers did not have far to come in search of fugitives. The state became such a magnet for “manstealers” that the legislature in 1826 passed a law trying to keep them out, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842, reversing the conviction of Edward Prigg, a professional slave catcher, for kidnapping, after he returned several fugitive slaves in Pennsylvania to their owners.

Indeed, one of the most infamous moments of violence resulting from the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 occurred in Christiana, in southern Pennsylvania, about eighty miles east of Gettysburg in Lancaster County. On September 11, 1851 (150 years to the day before 9/11–a curious if meaningless coincidence), a posse of six men led by Maryland slaveholder, Edward Gorsuch, descended on Christiana, having learned that several of his slaves were there. Gorsuch’s visit was entirely legal under federal law and he was accompanied by a deputy U.S. Marshal. An informant had told the party the slaves were hiding in the home of William Parker, a local laborer and himself a runaway slave. To make a long story short, Parker and the other fugitives were armed, shots were fired, and at the end of the encounter, Edward Gorsuch was dead and his son gravely wounded. Parker and Gorsuch’s slaves fled finding refuge in Canada and the case became yet another moment of sectional controversy in decade replete with then, contributing to the bitterness on both sides leading up to the Civil War.

It was this legacy, amplified by over two years of war, that helps explain the mood of Confederate troops as they crossed into Pennsylvania in June 1863. With federal armies having repeatedly crisscrossed Virginia and other southern states, and given refuge to thousands of slaves, rebel soldiers were in the mood for revenge. And one of the ways the Confederates got that vengeance was to carry off into slavery black Pennsylvanians unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.

While this phenomenon might just have occurred because of the initiative of countless individual rebel soldiers some scholars believe the seizure of African Americans in Pennsylvania in June 1863 was a result of policy emanating from the top of Lee’s army. As David G. Smith writes:

The 1863 slave raids [as he refers to Confederates carrying off black people during the Gettysburg Campaign], then were not just the case of renegade soldiers or private individuals independently capturing African Americans. Senior leaders such as Longstreet, Pickett, and Rodes were involved, and evidence also clearly implicates junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers.

Smith sees the seizure of black Pennsylvanians as part of broader foraging activities of the rebels during their 1863 invasion, carrying off anything that might be potentially valuable to their army and the Confederacy more generally. But he also believes that blacks not only were seized as a military asset, but also in revenge for the depredations of federal forces south of the Potomac River. Smith writes:

The Pennsylvania slave raids were not an aberration, but an extension of Confederate warfare in the bitterly contested Virginia-Maryland-Pennsylvania theater. They were just a part of the efforts of a resolute army that was retaliating against a determined foe, repudiating the Emancipation Proclamation, capturing a labor force, and fighting to preserve a way of life based on mastery over African Americans.

While there is no doubt much truth to David G. Smith’s assessment, it does not capture the shock and outrage of white Pennsylvanians when they saw their black neighbors carried away by the rebels. James M. Paradis has collected a number of heart-rendering accounts of Confederates capturing and sending south African Americans, some of whom had been born free, into slavery. The following is taken from his book, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign (2013), pp. 31-33. Paradis writes:

Terror spread through the black communities in southern Pennsylvania when they heard of the approaching Confederate army. Whether freeborn or formerly enslaved, African Americans had much to fear. Jacob Hoke described the actions of the invading army around Chambersburg:

One of the more revolting features of this day was the scouring of the fields about the town and searching of houses in portions of the place for negroes. The poor creatures–those of the who had not fled upon the approach of the foe–sought concealment in the growing wheat fields around the town. Into these the cavalrymen rode in search of their prey, and many were caught–some after a desperate chase and being fired at. In two cases, through the intercession of a friend who had influence with [Confederate General] Jenkins, I succeeded in effecting the release of the captured persons.

Many other witnesses recorded this practice. The Reverend Dr. Philip Schaff observed, “The town was occupied by an independent guerrilla band of cavalry, who steal horses, cattle, sheep, store-goods, Negroes, and whatever else they can make use of without ceremony and in evident violations of Lee’s proclamation read yesterday.” He continued,

On Friday this guerilla band came to town on a regular slave-hunt, which presented the worst spectacle I ever saw in this war. They proclaimed, first, that they would burn down every house which harbored a fugitive slave, and did not deliver him up within twenty minutes. And then commenced the search upon all the houses which suspicion rested. It was a rainy afternoon. They succeeded in capturing several contrabands, among them a women with two children. A most pitiful sight, sufficient to settle the slavery question for every humane mind.

The next day, June 27, Schaff reported that rebel troops drove:

twenty one negroes through the town and towards Greencastle or Hagerstown. It was a sight as sad and as mournful as the slave-hunt yesterday. They claimed all these Negroes were Virginia slaves, but I was positively assured that two or three were born and raised in this neighborhood. One, Sam Brooks, split many a cord of wood for me. There were among them women and small children, sitting with sad countenances on Store-boxes. I asked one of the riders guarding the wagons, “Do you not feel bad and mean in such an occupation?” He boldly replied that “he felt very comfortable. Comfortable. They were only reclaiming their property which we had stolen and harbored.”

Rachel Cormany watched the Confederates:

hunting up the contrabands & driving them off by droves. O! How it grated on our hearts to have to sit quietly & look at such brutal deeds–I saw no men among the contrabands–all women & children. Some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along–I sat on the front step as they were driven by just like we would drive cattle. Some laughed & seemed not to care–but nearly all hung their heads. One woman was pleading wonderfully with the driver for her children–but all the sympathy she received from him was a rough “March along”–at which she would quicken her pace again. It is a query what they wanted with those little babies–whole families were taken. Of course when the mother was taken she would take her children.

The Reverend Thomas Creigh recorded in his diary for Friday, June 26, “A terrible day. The guerillas passing and repassing, one of the saddest sights, several of our colored persons with them, to be sold into slavery, John Philkill and Findlay Cuff.” The Rebels announced that they intended “to search all houses for contrabands and fire arms and that wherever they discovered either they will set fire to the house in which they may be found.” The next day he reported the soldiers left, “taking with them about a dozen colored persons, mostly contrabands, women and children.”

The raiders carried many of the “contraband” away in wagons. “Some of the men were bound with ropes, and the children were mounted in front or behind the rebels on their horses.” Another citizen observed, “They took all they could find, even little children, whom they had to carry on horseback before them.” William Heyser recorded in his diary on June 18, “The Rebels have left Chambersburg taking with them about 250 colored people again into bondage.”

If the Confederates took disproportionate numbers of women and children it was because most of the men had no doubt fled, along with anyone else capable of leaving. Women with small children would have had trouble fleeing the rebel advance, and so fell into Confederate hands.

It will never be certain how many black Pennsylvanians were carried away by the Confederates during the Gettysburg Campaign. The number is at least in the several hundreds. That more African Americans were not kidnapped by Lee’s Army is because those that could prudently fled before their arrival, following the precedent of slaves liberated by Union Army who retreated with it when the fortunes of war shifted to avoid re-enslavement. Fortunately, such moments of African Americans fleeing to remain free were rare during the Civil War, but they did happen, such as during the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in June 1863. It was a pity all black Pennsylvanians could not get away from invading rebels, but thankfully their period of bondage would be relatively short (if they lived) compared to the past generations that had been born, lived, and died as slaves.

Sources: 1) David G. Smith, “The Capture of African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign,” in Virginia’s Civil War, ed. Peter Wallenstein and Betram Wyatt-Brown (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 137-51; 2) James M. Paradis, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign. Sesquicentennial Edition (Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, 2013), 31-33.

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Parting Thoughts on Juneteenth

Juneteenth (June 19) has yet again rolled around and passed. What began as former slaves in Texas commemorating the arrival of the Union Army in 1865 and their liberation from bondage has morphed in more recent years into an informal date to remember freedom for all the slaves. There is nothing wrong with that. Holidays can serve an important purpose of focusing society on important events in the past. Indeed, many holidays in the United States serve that purpose.  (July 4, Independence Day,the grand daddy of them all is just around the corner.) Certainly, the end of slavery in this country is an event that deserves to be remembered, since it was a moment in which the United States took a giant step to living closer to its own creed of freedom.

Having decided an event is worth a public holiday, the question then becomes when and how should people celebrate it? About a year ago, Allen Guelzo, Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, advocated in the National Review Online that a holiday should be established to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. I liked the idea of some sort of holiday to celebrate slave emancipation in the United States, but then and now I am not keen on focusing the celebration on the Emancipation Proclamation. I honor and revere this document, but the danger in celebrating it in particular is it would focus the remembrance on Abraham Lincoln instead of the slaves and promote the idea that emancipation came at a particular moment and due to the will of one man.

As Eric Foner has asserted (and as I concur) emancipation was a historical process. The end of slavery in the United States came slowly. It began with the First Emancipation in the North that started during the Revolutionary War and continued so long, there were still a handful of slaves in New Jersey on the eve of the Civil War. Slaveholders in the South, where the institution was more entrenched, did not join in the first emancipation except for some individual owners in the Upper South that took advantage of laws that made slave manumission easier. Any possibility of a voluntary end to slavery in the South ended with the rise of cotton cultivation that not only made slavery pay for slaveholders, but also pay handsomely. Making a fortune on “King Cotton” and convinced emancipation would ignite a bloody race war, white Southerners increasingly resisted the idea of freeing the slaves over the first six decades of the nineteenth century.  It would take a horrific Civil War to extinguish slavery in the American South, and even then slavery effectively ended incrementally over the course of the war, as slaves fled to Union lines, were freed when federal troops established control of where they lived, or as changes in federal or state law/policy went into effect in their location. There was not one moment in the Civil War, when all the slaves became free, certainly not when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. And the advent of the 13th Amendment, at the end of 1865, banning slavery in the United States, merely brought the process to an end by freeing the residual number of slaves  who had not been freed before over the course the Civil War.

In terms of a holiday, that creates a problem of how does a nation celebrate a historical process? Of course, for a long time emancipation was not celebrated outside the African American community, which has left a definite imprint on the commemoration of emancipation. As I wrote last year in response to Guelzo:

One important point about black celebrations of freedom was liberated slaves did it on a schedule that was meaningful to them. For example, one of the most famous emancipation celebrations is Juneteenth, typically celebrated on June 19. On this date in 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, recently arrived in Galveston with 2,000 federal troops, issued an order enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. So July 22, 1862 [the date Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet] had no particular meaning to the Texas slaves because they did not effectively become free for nearly three more years. Neither did September 22, 1862 (when Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation public) or January 1, 1863 (when it became final) because on those days Texas slaves were still in bondage. So understandably, former Texas slaves began in 1866 commemorating the day they actually gained their freedom.

The same thing is true elsewhere in the United States. In Florida, May 20 is the unofficial emancipation commemoration day because on that date in 1865, Union general Edward McCook read the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, bringing slavery there to an effective end. In Columbus, Mississippi, Emancipation Day is May 8, locally called ”Eight o’ May,” commemorating the day the slaves there learned of their freedom. In Paducah and McCracken County, Kentucky, Emancipation Day is August 8, again when the slaves there learned they were free. Emancipation Day in District of Columbia, which falls on April 16, is the day Abraham Lincoln signed congressional legislation freeing slaves there, effectively making slaves there free (although in modern times, in practice the commemoration is shifted a day or two some years to give government workers a three-day weekend).

In short, if emancipation’s celebration in the United States was and remains a rather decentralized, ad hoc affair, perhaps it is because emancipation itself was a rather decentralized, ad hoc event. First, it effectively occurred at many different times in many different places. Second, Abraham Lincoln could exert his considerable executive power to make it happen, but in the end many other people’s cooperation was required to implement it against the wishes of millions of Americans in opposition.

So maybe the United States does not really need a formal national holiday to celebrate emancipation. Instead, the informal ad hoc manner it is celebrated today, through Juneteenth and other commemorations better captures what was a historical process that took nearly a century and involved a cast of millions. A formal national holiday would carry the danger of promoting the false notion that freedom came a definite moment due entirely to the action of one man and/or the actions of elites, instead of the lengthy, complex historical process in which the slaves themselves played a significant part as actors in their own liberation.

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Happy Juneteenth!

Originally posted on Civil War Emancipation:

From Wikipedia: “Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is a holiday in the United States honoring African American heritage by commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. State of Texas in 1865. Celebrated on June 19, the term is a portmanteau of June and nineteenth, and is recognized as a state holiday or state holiday observance in 41 states of the United States.”

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juneteenth

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Harvard Presentation Video

FreedomRising

I do not mean to keep touting my Harvard triumph, but it just came to my attention that the Dubois Institute at Harvard just posted the video of Freedom Rising Symposium on YouTube, so I am posting the video of my session. My presentation begins at about 48:00 minutes and I participated actively in the Q&A session that followed.

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Frederick Douglass on Decoration Day, 1871

Donald R. Shaffer:

A timely post from Andy Hall …

Originally posted on Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog:

On Decoration Day, 1871, Frederick Douglass gave the following address at the monument to the Unknown Dead of the Civil War at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a short speech, but one of the best of its type I’ve ever encountered. I’ve posted it before, but it think it’s something worth re-reading and contemplating every Memorial Day.

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The Unknown Loyal Dead
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871
 
Friends and Fellow Citizens:
 
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is…

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Slow Death of the Fugitive Slave Law

One of the curious aspects of slavery’s end in the United States is that even after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect that 1850’s infamous fugitive slave law remained on the books, and some stubborn slaveholders even tried to make use of it to recover their human property. This fact should not be a surprising since four states–Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri–were exempted from the proclamation because they had not seceded but remained loyal to the Union. It also should not be surprising given the power of slave owners over federal government before the war. They were used to getting their way and it must have come as a rude shock to them during the Civil War when suddenly Washington authorities were no longer responsive to their demands. Still, even with the peculiar institution crumbling around them, a few pigheaded owners still tried to rely on federal law to recover their slaves.

A good example of a late usage of federal fugitive slave law is the case of a Maryland slave, Andrew Hall. His story is related by Kate Masur in her book, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (UNC Press, 2010). She writes:

The pivotal legal decision concerning fugitive slaves came in the spring of 1863, in the case of Andrew Hall, a nineteen year-old fugitive who had fled the estate of his owner, George W. Duvall, of Prince George’s County, Maryland [adjacent to Washington, D.C.]. Hall had been working in the capital for several months when, in April 1863, Duvall demanded the arrest under the federal fugitive slave laws of Hall and the two other men with whom he escaped. Ward Lamon, the federal marshal [and a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln], apprehended Hall in the city market, and Hall’s lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus, requiring that their client be brought to court for a hearing.

Hall’s case had special significance because it was the first fugitive slave case heard since Congress had reorganized the upper reaches of the District of Columbia’s court system. In March 1863, Congress had terminated the long-standing Circuit Court and, against vehement protests from local lawyers and city officials, created the District of Columbia Supreme Court, whose justices were appointed by the president. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect months earlier, but the newly organized court retained [Walter S.] Cox as fugitive slave commissioner, an indication that it planned to enforce the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Observers thus watched the Hall case closely to see what course the new justices would pursue.

The case was heard in a courtroom filled with black and white spectators. After extensive testimony and considerable deliberation, the four justices remained divided on the merits of the argument, made by Hall’s lawyers, that the fugitive slave laws applied only to the states and not to the federal district. Finally, in a split decision, the court affirmed that it must uphold the fugitive slave laws, provided the would-be owners could prove Union loyalty. Since Duvall had affirmed his support for the Union, the decision implied that Hall must return to his owner’s custody. But Hall’s lawyers immediately asked military authorities to intervene to secure his freedom. A melee ensued at the courthouse, as Duvall tried to grab Hall while onlookers sought to protect him. Military authorities took custody of Hall, and Duvall’s lawyers, in turn, attempted to bring charges against Hall’s attorney. But Duvall was powerless as provost marshal officials escorted Hall away. Hall later enlisted in a black regiment then being organized in the capital, and the next winter the court dismissed Duvall’s lawsuit.

So, while the Fugitive Slave Act and related legislation officially remained in force until June 1864, when Congress finally did away with it, they became essentially void. Even if a slaveholder, like George W. Duvall, could find a court to validate his claim, enforcing it was an entirely different matter. It is interesting though that men like Duvall tried, even after the Emancipation Proclamation’s release, to reclaim their slaves. It bespeaks a class of people, long accustomed to the law being on their side, in denial, that even though they technically were protected by the government in their slave property, in practice that increasingly the opponents of slavery, empowered by the war, could deny them those property rights with impunity. Or perhaps it was that federal authorities finally were protecting the real owners of those human beings–the slaves themselves and their right to their own person.

Source: Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 2010), 29-30.

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