The Case of Lucy Bagby

This week, 150 years ago, Lucy Bagby, a slave from Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) was returned to slavery after being recaptured in Cleveland, Ohio.  She had escaped in late 1860 and was arrested after Bagby’s owners tracked her down there.  They convinced a federal judge to return her to Virginia under the Fugitive Slave Act and on January 24, 1861, she arrived in Wheeling in the custody of a U.S. Marshall.

The Fugitive Slave Act had been highly controversial since its passage as part of the Compromise of 1850.  This law sought to make it easier for slave owners to reclaim slaves that escaped into the free states.  It resulted in resistance in many parts of the North, including juries acquitting defendants accused of violating the law and the passage of “Personal Liberty Laws” by northern state legislatures that sought to frustrate its implementation.  In 1854, the Wisconsin Supreme Court even declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional (a ruling overturned five years later by the U.S. Supreme Court).  In the infamous case of Anthony Burns that same year it took federal military force and the expenditure of $40,000 (a considerable sum at the time) for the Pierce administration to return one slave from Boston to his owner in Virginia.

Yet in 1861, as the case of Lucy Bagby shows, the Fugitive Slave Act was far from a dead letter.  Bagby’s owners were able to travel to northern city far from the Ohio River, reclaim their slave, and rely on federal authorities to convey her to them in Virginia.  Indeed, far from the hostility encountered by the authorities who returned Anthony Burns to slavery, Bagby’s owners, the Goshorn family, sent the following note to the Cleveland Herald.

“Before leaving Cleveland for home, we feel it a duty to the citizens of Cleveland, as well as to ourselves, to express our unfeigned gratitude for the uniform kindness with which we have been treated. Nothing but courtesy has been shown us by all of your citizens, who have even shielded us from the insults of your colored population — as an instance of which we will refer to an incident which occured this morning at the breakfast table of the Weddell House. A negro waiter refused to serve us, and upon the fact being known to Col Ross, the proprietor of the House, the waiter was promptly discharged, and ordered to leave the house.”

While Cleveland’s black population was hostile to Bagby’s return to slavery, white Clevelanders treated the Goshorns kindly enough that the family tendered their thanks through the press.

So, the Fugitive Slave Law was still functioning on the eve of the Civil War.  Perhaps because Midwesterners in Cleveland did not share the sensibilities of abolitionist Boston.  Perhaps because shall be seen in subsequent posts, in the early months of 1861, many white Northerners were eager to make gestures toward the South that might save the Union, even if these gestures harmed African Americans.

Correction: an earlier version of this post asserted Lucy Bagby was the last slave returned under the Fugitive Slave Law.  A friend set me straight as Maryland slaves were returned from Washington, D.C. to that loyal slave state under the law as late as 1863.  Civil War Emancipation will deal with the specific facts of such cases down the line as the come up in the Sesquicentennial.

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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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