In yesterday’s Disunion in the New York Times, Adam Goodheart wrote a highly significant piece related to emancipation. Goodheart relates the story of a young fugitive slave who on March 11, 1861, sought sanctuary by making his way across Charleston Harbor to Fort Sumter.
A day later, more slaves took the same action at another federal outpost in the Deep South, Fort Pickens, near Pensacola, Florida. The officer in charge of the post, Lt. Adam Slemmer, reported:
On the morning of the 12th instant four negroes (runaways) came to the fort entertaining the idea that we were placed here to protect them and grant them their freedom. I did what I could to teach them the contrary. In the afternoon I took them to Pensacola and delivered them to the city marshal to be returned to their owners. That same night four more made their appearance. They were also turned over to the authorities next morning.
Although the escapees did not find the refuge they sought (Major Anderson at Fort Sumter also returned his young fugitive), that slaves hundreds of miles apart were taking the same desperate step is quite significant. They were the vanguard of many thousands of African Americans that would seek sanctuary in Union lines during the Civil War. They demonstrate the slaves’ awareness that their status ultimately underlay the escalating conflict between North and South and showed their willingness to act on that belief.
It also was probably no coincidence that slaves began to flee to Union lines within days of Abraham Lincoln taking office as President of the United States. They no doubt overheard whites talking bitterly about Lincoln and calling him a “Black Republican” or worse, and decided that if this man was so hated by white Southerners, the new President and the federal soldiers that represented him at isolated outposts like Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens must be their friends.
It also was significant that in mid-March 1861, the numbers of slaves seeking sanctuary with Union forces was small. It wasn’t just that federal-controlled installations were few by this time in the Lower South. Most slaves, who could reach outposts like Pickens and Sumter, wisely held back waiting to see if the prospect of freedom emerging from the developing conflict was real or illusory. It is not surprising then that the slave who showed up at Fort Sumter on March 11, 1861, as Adam Goodheart relates in Disunion was a juvenile. Actually fleeing to federal troops at that point was a rash action–something a youth might be expected to do.
But no doubt by mid-March 1861, many slaves were thinking of how they might take advantage of the looming conflict to gain their freedom and not just escape was on their mind. Adam Goodheart writes in Disunion that South Carolina authorities eventually refused to allow to return to Fort Sumter, a slave named James, who the federal troops had hired as a servant, because “It seemed that James, who was apparently literate, had exchanged letters with his mother about a possible uprising in which Charleston’s slaves would attack their masters as soon as the first shots were fired between Union and Confederate forces.” No such revolt developed when the Confederates finally attacked Sumter the following month, but it cannot be doubted some slaves in and around Charleston contemplated such a move.
So, as the secession winter gave way to spring, the slaves thought about how they might take advantage of developing events and a bold few even began to do something about it. Those that acted showed that African Americans would not be passive bystanders as the nation descended into Civil War. They would be joined by thousands of others in the months to come.