The Achilles Heel of Contraband of War policy was how it only applied to the slaves of disloyal owners. It did not take into account the desire of slaves to be free, regardless of their owner’s stance about secession. Likewise, the policy did not reckon with the distaste of northern troops in returning fugitive slaves. Such sentiments were a prescription for trouble in early Summer 1861 as northern units moved into states like Maryland with many slaveholders still loyal to the Union and presumably not subject to the seizure of their slaves.
One such episode which made its way into the official record began on June 25, 1861, with a letter from Adjutant General’s Office at the War Department to Irvin McDowell in command of the Army of Northeastern Virginia. The letter read:
GENERAL: Sergeant Noland who will hand you this is a messenger in the War Department. Please aid him in recovering the negro belonging to his mother (or brother who goes with him). The negro is with some of the Ohio troops and from Mr. Noland’s account they have been practicing a little of the abolition system in protecting the runaway.
The following day, June 26, McDowell issued an order which simply read, “Brigadier-General Schenck will please have this matter investigated and return the negro to his owner.”
The slave’s owner, Caroline F. Noland, of Rockville, Maryland, on June 27, followed up with a letter to the U.S. Army’s commanding general, Winfield Scott. It read:
DEAR SIR: I learned through a reliable source that my servant named George was in the Ohio regiments, number One and Two, camped in Virginia. My son made application to the Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, for authority to examine into the fact and for his obtension which was politely complied with by that functionary, which authority was received and seemingly accredited by the officers commanding said department which resulted in my son seeing my servant, but by the interference of the soldiery which seemed to be without control they were not permitted to reclaim said negro. I therefore have thought it advisable to submit the matter to you as commander-in-chief of the army to suggest and adopt such course in the premises as may enable me to reclaim my property.
What motivated the Ohio soldiers to give George sanctuary was never clarified. Perhaps they already held abolitionist sentiments. Perhaps they did not like what they saw of slavery as they made their way through Maryland to Virginia. Perhaps they were persuaded by tales of mistreatment from George himself. Perhaps he offered to work for them as a servant in return for refuge in their camp. Maybe it was some or all of these reasons. However, what is beyond question is that not only the initiative of slaves escaping to the Union army started to undermine slavery, but also the initiative of individual soldiers who gave them sanctuary–in the loyal border as well as the Confederacy. Together, they undermined the Contraband of War policy by stretching it to include human property that Union leaders had never sought to include: the slaves of loyal owners.
Author’s Note: there will be more on this case after the 4th of July holiday.