Achilles Heel of the Contraband Policy, Part 2

The June 26 issue of Civil War Emancipation discussed an unintentional defect of the Contraband of War policy–that it only gave refuge to slaves of disloyal owners, while slaves of both loyal and disloyal owners wanted to be free. The policy’s weakness was illustrated in late June 1861, when George, the slave of a Rockville, Maryland woman, fled her custody and was allegedly taken in by Ohio troops. As the Ohio soldiers were part of Irvin McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia, McDowell ordered Brig. Gen. Robert C. Schenck, a brigade commander in Daniel Tyler’s division, to investigate.

There was silence on the matter until July 5, when commander of the 1st Ohio Infantry, Col. Alexander M. McCook wrote the Assistant Adjutant of Schenck’s brigade, Donn Piatt. His letter stated:

I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of the letters from the Headquarters of the Army relative to a runaway negro from Montgomery County, Md., purporting to belong to Mrs. Caroline Noland, of said county. Mrs. Noland says “by the interference of soldiers which seemed without control they (my sons) were not permitted to reclaim my negro.” This piece of information as she was not here herself of course she obtained from her sons. It is absolutely and unqualifiedly false. The officer of the day was sent through camp with the Messrs. Noland. No violence was offered them nor threats uttered save by myself which will be explained further on. The Messrs. Noland were especially taken through the company quarters where one of them thought he had seen the negro in question the day before and then were returned to headquarters and expressed themselves satisfied that their negro was not in my camp. I then sent them with the officer of the day to the camp of the Second Ohio when a like protection was given them.

Mr. Noland or a man named Sergeant Noland, a messenger in the War Department, handed me a letter from Col. E. D. Townsend, assistant adjutant-general, U. S. Army, in which Colonel Townsend states “from Mr. Noland’s account the Ohio troops have been  practicing a little of the abolition system in protecting runaways.” I was very much surprised to hear such sentiments expressed by the chief of staff about my brave men. I then told the Messrs. Noland that the man who gave Colonel T. such information stated what was false and that if he was the person I would have no hesitancy in marching him out of camp. Sergeant Noland denied in the presence of my entire staff that he had ever given Colonel Townsend any such information; that he, Colonel T., was in no manner authorized to make such a statement; and more than that had he known what the contents of the letter was he would not have delivered it. I then told Sergeant Noland that he might have been mistaken about having seen his negro in my camp; that even if he had the negro might have been in the camp temporarily. I then told him to go to the Connecticut camps but he did not go.

The same day Major Bartholomew, of the District militia, accompanied by a friend came into my camp on a similar errand. I extended to him the same protection. He saw the negro that was represented to be the property of his friend but said he was mistaken and acknowledged that he had been misinformed and thanked me for my attention and left the camp. I do not believe Mrs. Noland has a negro in this camp and from the lying propensities of her sons I am now in doubt if she ever owned a negro. I inclose a letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Parrott on same case. I know nothing of Mrs. Howard’s negro.

Whether the slave George actually was in the camp of 1st Ohio Infantry is unknown from Col. McCook’s letter and not important historically. But from the last paragraph it is clear that even in the earliest months of the war, African Americans found ways to attach themselves to the Union army. No doubt, most if all not all of them were slaves, so even if these Ohio troops were not “practicing a little of the abolition system in protecting runaways,” clearly the army as a whole already was effectively acting as abolitionists (even if they did not intend so), and not just for the slaves of disloyal owners, but also for those of presumably loyal owners like Caroline Noland. Many soldiers and officers found escaped slaves could provide all manner of useful services they were loath to do without. Likewise, just as white Northerners had found enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act distasteful at home in the 185os, their feelings had not changed in the 1860s as they moved into slave territory as soldiers. Alexander McCook’s hostility to the Noland family in his letter clearly manifests that attitude. It would have much to do with the role of the Union army in undermining the slave system early in the Civil War. While they were ready to fight for Union, they did not see slave catching as part of that mission.


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
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