This edition of Civil War Emancipation might be subtitled “Simon Cameron cops out.” The July 27 edition of this blog discussed a debate in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 22 and 23 dealing with if and how the House should respond to accounts of armed African Americans with the armies, especially in the Confederate forces at the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas. Congress ultimately passed a resolution to ask the Secretary of War to investigate and report back.
I became curious how Cameron responded and locating his papers at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, I sent them a research inquiry. I was pleased to get a response from Michelle Krowl, an old acquaintance, who is now their Civil War and Reconstruction Specialist. According to Krowl, Cameron’s response, dated July 25, 1861 was as follows:
“Sir: In reply to the resolution of the House of Representatives of the 22d instant, requesting to be informed ‘whether the Southern Confederacy, so-called, or any State thereof, has in their military service any Indians, and if so, what number, and what tribes; and also, whether they have in said service any negroes,’ I have the honor to state that this department has in its possession no information on the subject.”
That Simon Cameron replied within 72 hours is instructive. While it demonstrates that Cameron was prompt in responding to a congressional resolution, that amount of time was hardly adequate for the Secretary of War to answer the query with any thoroughness. Obviously, Cameron did not want to get involved in the debate over such a sensitive issue as opponents and defenders of slavery in Congress maneuvered for advantage in Summer 1861. As Cameron’s political position in Lincoln’s cabinet deteriorated later that fall as his mismanagement of the Union war effort became clear, the Secretary would actually argue for the Union army enlisting black soldiers. If his effort was meant to curry favor with the opponents of slavery in Congress, it did not work and Lincoln forced Cameron’s resignation as Secretary of War in early 1862. Of course, within the same year, President Lincoln embraced both emancipation and black enlistment in the Union army. But in late 1861 and early 1862, Abraham Lincoln still was intent on appeasing the loyal slave states and maybe reconciling the seceded states to the Union by demonstrating his willingness to defend slavery’s legal protections under federal law. But these are stories for another time.