Limits of the Contraband Policy

The July 10 edition of Civil War Emancipation featured a letter from Maryland Congressman Charles Calvert to Abraham Lincoln complaining about the state’s slaves fleeing their owners and finding refuge in Union army camps, even accompanying the troops across the Potomac River into Virginia. It is not certain when Calvert’s letter, dated July 10, 1861, reached Lincoln or when he read it, but his reaction was swift and understandably so. The President simply could not lose Maryland to the Confederacy, as Washington, D.C., effectively would become an island in enemy territory, and its position as the federal capital untenable.

Abraham Lincoln had acted forcefully in late April against Maryland’s secessionists, suspending habeas corpus in the state which allowed federal authorities to arrest persons suspected of disloyalty and imprison them indefinitely without trial. With Unionists like Charles Calvert, however, Lincoln had to adopt a more conciliatory policy. The President evidently decided to do what Calvert asked, but quietly and without fanfare (presumably not to excite either abolitionists in his own party or slaveholders). Rather than publicly announce his actions, he sent a quiet note to Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott then discretely communicated with Gen. Irvin McDowell, Union commander in Virginia, in a letter written by Scott’s military secretary, Lt. Col. Schuyler Hamilton, dated July 16, 1861. The letter, labeled “Confidential,” read:

SIR: The general-in-chief desires me to communicate to you that he has received from the President of the United States a second note dated to-day on the subject of fugitive slaves in which he asks: “Would it not be well to allow owners to bring back those which have crossed” the Potomac with our troops? The general earnestly invites your attention to this subject knowing that you with himself enter fully into His Excellency’s desire to carry out to the fullest all constitutional obligations. Of course it is the general’s wish the name of the President should not at this time be brought before the public in connection with this delicate subject.

Likewise, the Adjutant General’s Office sent a short note to Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield, commander of federal forces in Washington, D.C. It stated, “SIR: The general-in-chief directs that you take stringent measures to prevent any fugitive slaves from passing over the river particularly as servants with the regiments ordered over.” Mansfield quickly issued General Order No. 33, dated July 17, 1861. The order stated:

Fugitive slaves will under no pretext whatever be permitted to reside or be in any way harbored in the quarters and camps of the troops serving in this department. Neither will such slaves be allowed to accompany troops on the march. Commanders of troops will be held responsible for a strict observance of this order.

What response McDowell made is not entirely clear. He was probably too busy with the preparations for the Battle of Bull Run, which was mere days away (it occurred on July 21). Likewise, the note from Scott’s military secretary did not demand any definite action. Merely that McDowell allow loyal slaveholders to reclaim fugitive slaves taking refuge with his army. Yet clearly there were officers in McDowell’s army who still saw giving any slaves refuge as improper, even if presumably their owners were disloyal. On July 14, 1861, Col. Thomas A. Davies, commanding the 2nd Brigade, 5th Division of McDowell’s army sent a note to his superior, Col. D. S. Miles, commanding the 5th Division of the Army of Northeastern Virginia. It read:

SIR: In pursuance of your verbal order of yesterday I made a reconnaissance on the Fairfax road seven miles out and on the Richmond road about ten miles and on the Mount Vernon road as far as Mount Vernon. … The negroes harnessed up one four-mule team to a wagon and one two-mule team to a wagon and got in to the number of ten of their own accord and drove to my camp. … As to the negroes there being no law or orders directing me either to cause them to remain at home or to prevent them from volunteering to do team duty in my brigade I shall allow them to remain until otherwise directed. I, however, have placed a guard over the provisions, the mules and the wagons on the estate and shall await your orders for their disposition. Miles response to Davies was swift and simple. It stated, “Colonel Davies has been instructed to immediately withdraw his pickets to within a proper distance in front of his brigade, to respect private property and to send back to the farm the negroes his troops brought away.

Clearly, D. S. Davies did not see the slaves in question as “contraband of war” to be denied to the enemy, but as private property to be respected even if the owners might be secessionists. So in mid-July 1861, the contraband policy’s effectiveness in undermining slavery was limited by the Lincoln administration’s determination it only apply to disloyal owners and certain Union officers who declined to enforce it all. But the slaves and their de facto allies in positions of authority would continue to test those limits.


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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1 Response to Limits of the Contraband Policy

  1. taylorcb says:

    Dr. Shaffer – Having not had an opportunity to read the entirety of your blog, I was hoping you could tell me if harboring and protecting fugitive slaves was common practice throughout all the union armies? There are many such episodes, but was this sort of treatment the rule or the exception? Additionally, was there a significant difference in how enlisted men treated escaped slaves vs their treatment by Union officers?

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