Frustrated Abolitionists, Determined Slaves

As indicated in the October 11 edition of Civil War Emancipation, abolitionists found Fall 1861 a frustrating time. Encouraging developments of the previous summer, such as the Lincoln administration’s acceptance of Gen. Butler’s Contraband-of-War policy, the Confiscation Act, and Gen. Frémont’s martial law proclamation freeing slaves of disloyal owners in Missouri had not resulted in the Civil War becoming for the Union a conflict to free the slaves. Indeed, as October progressed it seemed to many abolitionists that the pendulum was swinging against freedom as the friends of freedom in the U.S. forces were punished and its enemies prospered.

On October 12, a black newspaper based in New York City, the Weekly Anglo-African, published in a short piece titled “This vs. That”:

GENERAL BUTLER writes in behalf of the “contrabands,” and he is genteelly cashiered into a department (New England) where neither war nor slaves are likely to be troublesome.

GENERAL FREMONT proclaims emancipation to the slaves of rebels, and he is snubbed by the President, and the pipe is laid which will inevitably lay him upon the shelf.

COMMODORE STRINGHAM gives emancipated slaves a chance to work a gun against slaveholders at Hatteras Inlet, and he is turned out of his command (after a victory gained) and is replaced by a Marylander, whose command is at once distinguished by two great gifts of arms and medicines to the enemy, one by capture, and the other by running the blockade.

Per Contra

GENERAL MCCLELLAN announced his willingness to put down slave insurrections in Western Virginia, and he is made virtually Commander-in-Chief of the army of the United States.

GENERAL BANKS returns fugitive slaves across the Potomac, and he is ranked Major General, and civilian that he is, is kept in the most important post in the army.

COLONEL DURYEA sends back fugitive slaves from Baltimore, and he is advanced to the rank of Brigadier General.

While the abolitionists lamented their setbacks, the slaves, not having the luxury of wallowing in self-pity, continued to act, exploiting any opportunity however risky to escape bondage. This included slaves in the loyal border states, such as Maryland. The Local News in Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. reported in this regard on October 28. The story read:

The Annapolis correspondent of the Baltimore Sun says:–“The Federal fleet, which sailed from the port on Sunday night last, took with them several slaves belonging to parties in this city and vicinity. It is alleged the slaves secreted themselves in the vessels, or were stowed away there by the soldiers, unknown to and contrary to the explicit orders of the commanders. Some eight or ten were arrested while endeavoring to get away, and lodged in jail. It is generally believed that the officers of the expedition did all in their experience to prevent the escape of negroes. They arrested several and handed them over to the sheriff.”

So in other words, in the dark days of Fall 1861, the struggle for emancipation was kept alive by the slaves themselves. They grasped at the slimmest hope for freedom, even if it involved stowing away with a Union military expedition headed by ocean for points further south. Their ally in the quest to be free often were Union soldiers and sailors who may have simply wanted a servant or who took pity on their plight, and proved willing to help them even against orders of their superiors to the contrary. So by countless individual acts of resistance that autumn the cause of emancipation was kept alive and shortly would get a major boost by the very military expedition mentioned in Alexandria paper, which was headed to establish a Union foothold in South Carolina and Georgia’s Sea Islands.

Sources: 1); 2);words=1861+October+slaves.

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
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s