Limits of the Limits of the Contraband Policy

The July 10 edition of Civil War Emancipation featured a letter from Congressman Charles Calvert to Abraham Lincoln complaining of fugitive slaves from Maryland finding sanctuary with units of the Union army encamped in his state and the District of Columbia. President Lincoln took the letter seriously. Keeping Maryland in the Union was essential to the Union war effort. While Lincoln used ruthless means like imprisoning without trial Marylanders suspected of disloyalty, he also recognized the need for the carrot as well as the stick. Just as disloyal slaveholders in Virginia needed to be punished with the loss of their slaves, Lincoln believed the property rights of loyal slaveholders in Maryland needed to be respected. Which meant making an effort, as described in the July 17 edition of Civil War Emancipation, to stop Maryland slaves from finding sanctuary with the Union army.

Despite the letters from army commanders to Union forces, issued at President Lincoln’s behest, to stop giving Maryland slaves refuge or permitting them to cross the Potomac River with the army, the problem continued. On August 3, 1861, Congressman Calvert was back with another letter of complaint to Abraham Lincoln. It read:

When I called to see you some time since on the subject of our slaves being employed and concealed in the various camps around Washington I was much pleased with your frankness and the views then expressed by you and I indulged the hope that some effectual means would be adopted to prevent the injury in future. It has however so increased and is having such a prejudicial effect on the Union cause that I feel compelled to call your attention to it and ask that some adequate remedy may be immediately resorted to to abate the nuisance. The camps in Maryland and Virginia are filled with slaves from Maryland and it certainly is the duty of the government to put a stop to such violations of our rights by arresting all such persons who may now be found in the camps and delivering them to their rightful owners. It is furthermore the duty of the government to prevent the troops in future from receiving, employing, harboring or concealing slaves in the camps or permitting them to travel with them.

If the measures were adopted and strictly enforced we should have a very different state of feeling, from that now existing, towards the government from all classes of our citizens. The impunity with which these acts are daily perpetrated and the outrages practiced upon those seeking to recover their slaves, by the soldiers are justly incensing our citizens against the government for permitting such violations of our constitutional rights. Two weeks since the U.S. ship Pawnee received on board three slaves, belonging to a firm Union man in St. Mary’s County Maryland, the Secretary of the Navy as to their disposition, turned them loose in Alexandria to the great injury and loss of the owner who will consequently make a demand on the government for compensation. They represented themselves as free negroes from Virginia and under that pretext were received on board. Many slaves have been taken away by the troops who have returned home from Washington in the cars. I beg leave to say that these various grievances require immediate correction if the government desires to protect our rights and encourage and foster the Union feeling in the Border States.

Since writing the foregoing my attention has been called to the enclosed paragraph in a morning paper which I trust is entirely without foundation. [The enclosed newspaper clipping read: “THE SLAVES AT ALEXANDRIA. The Secretary of War has directed Colonel Franklin, who is in command at Alexandria, to liberate all the slaves at that post, and to employ them in assisting to construct fortifications, paying them for their work as day laborers. He also directed that other slaves escaping to our army shall be disposed of in a similar manner.“] Such an order would be direct violation of all our rights and would at once disarm all our Union men because a large proportion of those negroes are our runaways from Maryland and I should feel compelled to protest against such an unwarrantable assumption [illegible] on the part of any department of the government. I enclose a letter, being one of many of I am I [illegible], from one of our firmest Union men and most intelligent citizens as evidence of the prevailing sentiment in our community.

In conclusion I would most respectfully ask that such measures may be adopted as will secure the following objects

1st  That all slaves now in the camps, either in Virginia or Maryland, belonging to citizens of Maryland may be arrested and confined until delivered to their owners.

2nd  That in future they shall not be permitted, under any pretext, to be received, harbored or concealed either in the camps, military stations or on board of government vessels.

3rd  That most stringent regulations be adopted to prevent the abduction of our slaves by soldiers returning to their homes or moving from one station to another.

Lincoln evidently took George Calvert’s August letter as seriously as the July letter. Soon high-ranking officers in the Union army issued instructions aimed at addressing Congressman Calvert’s concerns. For example, on August 9, 1861, Maj. Gen. George A. Dix, in command of the Department of Maryland and Pennsylvania sent the following note to Col. Joseph C. Pinckney, in command of the 6th Regiment of the New York State militia. It read:

COLONEL: A colored man by the name of Nicholas Johnson, commonly called Nick, was in the hospital at Annapolis while you were in command and disappeared as you are aware just before your regiment returned to New York. I know through Governor Hicks that the circumstances are all familiar to you. I need not therefore enter into any statement of them. But I write by the direction of the War Department to request “your exertions toward the recovery of the boy” and that you “take such measures as may be in your power toward the accomplishment of this purpose.”

The following day, August 10, W. W. Averell, Acting Assistant Adjutant General, wrote a similar letter to Capt. H. Davison, commanding the guard at the Washington railroad depot. It stated:

SIR: It is directed by the provost-marshal that you permit no soldiers to leave this city by the railroad who are unable to show that they have been properly discharged from the service of the United States; also that no negroes without sufficient evidence of their being free or of their right to travel are permitted to leave the city upon the cars.

The problem with such communications, and the earlier ones issued in July, is they clashed with the realities of wartime conditions in the field. Fugitive slaves often elicited the sympathy of Union troops recently exposed first hand to the cruelties of slavery. Slaves also made themselves useful to the northern soldiers in a variety of ways. In addition, it proved difficult to differentiate between the slaves of loyal and disloyal slaves, especially when slaves shrewdly claimed their owners were rebels even if they were not. Finally, it was simply a fact by Summer 1861 that in order to function the Union army had become as dependent on African-American labor as its Confederate counterpart.

This necessity explains the guidance of Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, to Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of Fortress Monroe, discussed in the August 8 edition of Civil War Emancipation. Cameron’s letter directed Butler to keep careful records of the work done by each escaped slaves under his protection so that loyal slaveholders could be compensated for their work after the war. But he freed Butler from the obligation of returning any slaves of loyal owners because the Lincoln administration evidently believed by August 1861 that the labor needs of the Union army, and military operations more generally, took precedent over immediate restitution to loyal slaveholders. While not denying their property rights, as a practical matter it would be necessary to delay returning their slaves until after the war when doing so would no longer interfere with the Union war effort.

So George Calvert could complain endlessly on behalf of loyal Maryland slaveholders and while Lincoln administration was sympathetic to those grievances and did what it could, the effectiveness of its actions were limited by the strong desire of slaves to be free, regardless of whether or not their owners were loyal, and by the unwillingness of busy field troops to return slaves, especially given how useful the slaves made themselves and how they educated northern soldiers first hand about the cruelties of the slave system.

Sources: Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress:; Official Records:

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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