Enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act – April 1861

On April 8, 1861, the Richmond Dispatch ran a short item that would have given cheer to slaveholders. The piece simply read:

The fugitive slaves taken from this city Wednesday morning were examined before Commissioner Cornean yesterday. The proof that they were fugitives was clear and indisputable, and they were accordingly delivered to their owners. They were taken to St. Louis on the evening train.

The notice was cribbed from slightly longer story in the New York Times, dated April 4. It read:

A colored man named HARRIS, with his wife and two children, were arrested here this morning on a warrant issued by United States Commissioner CONNEAU and sent by special train to Springfield, where they will be examined to-morrow. The man is claimed by Mr. PATTERSON, of St. Louis County, Mo., and the woman and children by Mr. VAIL, of the same County, from whence they escaped. As it was almost entirely unknown that warrants were issued they were executed with little difficulty, but after the affair became known the most intense excitement prevailed among the colored portion of the community, and large numbers gathered at the depot at the time the regular morning train left, the crowd supposing the fugitives to be aboard. One or two shots were fired at the train. Beyond this there was no disturbance.

Clearly, the Richmond paper decided to spare its readers the disturbing news of African Americans in Chicago resisting the Fugitive Slave Act. But the rendition of Harris and his family was no isolated event. There appears to have been a last drive to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in April 1861, even as the Civil War broke out. James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton have written, “Even as the first shots of the Civil War were being fired, the Fugitive Slave Law continued to affect African Americans. Three hundred left Chicago for the safety of Canada during the first few weeks of in April, 1861, it was said, because of ‘vigorous enforcement’ of the Fugitive Slave Law.”[1] Clearly, the capture of Harris and his family had made an impression in Chicago’s black community.

Yet it was not just in Chicago where the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act occurred in April 1861–or where its enforcement caused turmoil. The Philadelphia Enquirer reported on April 5, 1861:

FUGITIVE SLAVE CASE IN CINCINNATI.–A fugitive slave named SWARTZ was recently arrested in Ohio. The application for habeas corpus was refused. Some excitement was evinced in the Court room when the decision was made known. The prisoner was taken to the door and given to the custody of the agent from Kentucky when immediately a considerable disturbance was created at the door of the Court room. An immense crowd gathered in a short time and there was a great deal of rough handling. In a short time, ISAAC JACOBS and SAMUEL WOLF were brought in Deputy Sheriffs HORNUNG and BRECK [?], charged with interfering with the officers of justice. They were fined.”

So clearly there was a surge of enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the weeks leading up to the start of the Civil War. No doubt with the wave of appeasement of the slaves states that had occurred in February and March, some slaveholders concluded it was the time to press fugitive slaves claims in the North. Clearly also, as can be seen from the Chicago and Cincinnati cases, free black communities in the free states reacted strongly to these enforcement activities with fight and flight.

[1] James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton, “A Federal Assault: African Americans and Impact of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850” Chicago-Kent Law Review 68 (1993): 1188-1189.

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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