The Contraband Flood Spreads

What started as an isolated occurrences in Spring 1861, by Fall 1861 became more widespread. The phenomena in question was slaves seeking sanctuary with the Union army. It had begun in March that year with a few bold slaves making their way to isolated Union garrisons at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and Fort Pickens, Florida–and being turned away. It became a sensation in May, when for reasons of military advantage, Gen. Benjamin Butler, refused to return three fugitive slaves to their rebel owners, and over that summer learned a lesson in humanity as over a thousand Virginia slaves sought freedom at Fortress Monroe.

Yet even with the events at Fortress Monroe, Americans could still fool themselves early in the Civil War what had happened there was an isolated incident. Yet over the Summer 1861, events elsewhere suggested not. In Maryland, as northern troops flooded the state, first to protect Washington, D.C. and then for their ill-fated campaign in Virginia that ended at Bull Run, slaves–many of loyal owners–disappeared into army camps. In Virginia, daring slaves braved often treacherous coastal waters to make their way to Union blockading fleet.

So it should come as no surprise as northern forces increasingly spread across the Upper South in Fall 1861 that so did the contraband phenomenon. Gary Gallagher is quite right in asserting that the Union army was a necessary agent to freedom for the slaves. However, what also must be acknowledged in the emancipation process during the American Civil War is the slaves’ initiative. The Union army would not have become a force for freedom if the slaves had not repeatedly and in many different places shown up expecting that northern soldiers would become their liberators, wearing down the initial determination of many Union officers that the army would have nothing to do with slaves or slavery.

The spread of the contraband phenomenon during Fall 1861 can be seen in Union army correspondence saved in the Official Records. For example, as Missouri descended into chaos that autumn, slaves began showing up in army camps and Union officers had to decide what to do with them. A task made all the more complicated by of the fact that some of these slaves’ owners were loyal and others disloyal, and it was often impossible in Missouri’s disorder for the army to determine to which group particular slaves belonged.

On September 20, 1861, Brig. Gen. Justus McKinstry, the U.S. Army Provost Marshal in St. Louis sent a letter to the captain in charge of the federal arsenal there. It read: “By my order Colonel McNeil, commanding provost guard, will deliver into your custody certain runaway negro slaves who have been heretofore apprehended and committed to the military prison. I desire they be employed at police duty and such other labor as you may choose until they are reclaimed by their masters, who upon proof of their ownership and that they are loyal to the United States will be entitled to receive them back into their service.

Other slaves continued to present themselves to Union troops as September rolled into October. On October 6, Col. John C. Kelton, commanding Union forces at Booneville, Missouri, forwarded slaves to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Army of the West with the following note, which stated: “I send by the Northerner in charge of Captain Renfro, Ninth Regiment Missouri Volunteers, several slaves who having given important information to Major Eppstein while in command of this post which saved his command from surprise now seek protection from their masters who threaten to kill them. Major Eppstein cannot longer protect them. I therefore send them to Jefferson City where they can work on the fortifications.

Prompting Missouri slaves to flee their owners was not only the general disorder in the state which broke down the state’s enforcement of slave discipline, but also the Missouri campaign of Kansas’ U.S. Senator and Union general James Henry Lane. Lane was an abolitionist radicalized by “Bleeding Kansas.” His tactics in Fall 1861 anticipated the “hard war” that would be implemented elsewhere later by commanders such as Sherman and Sheridan, which is not surprising given the bitter fighting between pro and anti-slavery forces in Kansas in the 1850s. Lane’s attitude is fully evident in a colorful letter, dated October 3, 1861, to Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis, who was evidently concerned about Lane’s activities, which had included sacking Osceola, Missouri, on September 23. General/Senator Lane would brook no interference from Sturgis, writing:

In answer to your note of this day I have this to say that I don’t care a fig about rank; I have enough of the glittering tinsel to satisfy me. I am here in obedience to an order from Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont to co-operate with you in ferreting out and fighting the enemy. Kindly and promptly do I desire to obey that order. My brigade is not here for the purpose of interfering in anywise with the institution of slavery. They shall not become negro thieves nor shall they be prostituted into negro-catchers. The institution of slavery must take care of itself.

I said in the Senate of the United States and my experience since only demonstrates its truth that in my opinion the institution would perish with the march of the Federal armies.

Again I say that the mass of the personal property in Missouri including slave is at this moment held by the wives and children assisted by the Federal Army while the husband and father are actually in arms against the Government. In my opinion our policy in this regard should be changed.

Confiscation of slaves and other property which can be made useful to the army should follow treason as the thunder peal follows the lightning flash. Until this change is made you offer premiums for the men to remain away in the army of the enemy. I had a man cowardly shot in the woods to-day within sight of our camp by the very men I have no doubt whose property you are so anxious to protect.

James Henry Lane was clearly a man ahead of his time, and he would prove it again in 1862 by organizing the first African-American regiment in the Union army. But during Fall 1861, the contraband phenomenon was spreading. Maryland, as a staging area for the Union army, continued to have problems with slaves escaping into army camps, as soldiers sheltered fugitives from loyal masters despite the diligent efforts of Gen. John A. Dix to keep them out.

Yet the really notable area of new contraband activity in Fall 1861 was in Kentucky, where slaves seeking protection from the army vexed William Tecumseh Sherman, in command of the Army of the Cumberland, no doubt contributing to his famous nervous breakdown soon afterwards. On October 15, 1861, he wrote Col. John Turchin in command of the 19th Illinois Infantry in Louisville. His letter, which belied his declining mental state, said simply:

Two gentlemen unknown to me but introduced by Mr. Guthrie say some negro slaves have taken refuge in your camp and are there sheltered.

The laws of the United States and of Kentucky all of which are binding on us compel us to surrender a runaway negro on application of negro’s owner or agent. I believe you have not been instrumental in this but my orders are that all negroes shall be delivered up on claim of the owner or agent. Better keep the negroes out of your camp altogether unless you brought them along with the regiment.

Sherman no doubt wished the slaves would stop coming, but instead their numbers grew. On November 5, he received a letter from Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook, in charge at Camp Nevin in Hardin County, seeking guidance with what to do with the slaves seeking his protection. McCook wrote:

The subject of contraband negroes is one that is looked to by the citizens of Kentucky of vital importance. Ten have come into my camp within as many hours and from what they say there will be a general stampede of slaves from the other side of Green River. They have already become a source of annoyance to me and I have great reason to believe that this annoyance will increase the longer we stay. They state the reasons of their running away that their masters are rank secessionists-in some cases are in the rebel army, and that slaves of Union men are pressed into service to drive teams, &c.

I would respectfully suggest that if they be allowed to remain here our cause in Kentucky may be injured. I have no faith in Kentucky’s loyalty therefore have no great desire to protect her pet institution-slavery. As a matter of policy how would it do for me to send for their masters and deliver the negroes to them on the outside of our lines, or send them to the other side of Green River and deliver them up? What effect would it have on our cause south of the river? I am satisfied they bolster themselves up by making the uninformed believe that this is a war upon African slavery. I merely make these suggestions for I am very far from wishing these recreant masters in possession of any of their property for I think slaves no better than horses in that respect.

I have put the negroes to work. They will be handy with teams and generally useful. I consider the subject embarrassing and must defer to your better judgment.

Sherman replied on November 8, telling McCook that he must deliver up the slaves to their owners when requested. He wrote:

I have no instructions from Government on the subject of negroes. My opinion is that the laws of the State of Kentucky are in full force and that negroes must be surrendered on application of their masters or agents or delivered over to the sheriff of the county. We have nothing to do with them at all and you should not let them take refuge in camp. It forms a source of misrepresentation by which Union men are estranged from our cause. I know it is almost impossible for you to ascertain in any case the owner of the negro. But so it is; his word is not taken in evidence and you will send them away.

Gen. George McClellan, recently appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army, reiterated the aforementioned sentiments even more forcefully in a letter to Sherman’s replacement, Don Carlos Buell. McClellen stated in a letter to Buell dated November 7, 1861:

It is absolutely necessary that we shall hold all the State of Kentucky. Not only that but that the majority of its inhabitants shall be warmly in favor of our cause, it being that which best subserves their interests. It is possible that the conduct of our political affairs in Kentucky is more important than that of our military operations. I certainly cannot overestimate the importance of the former. You will please constantly bear in mind the precise issue for which we are fighting. That issue is the preservation of the Union and the restoration of the full authority of the General Government over all portions of our territory. We shall most readily suppress this rebellion and restore the authority of the Government by religiously respecting the constitutional rights of all. I know that I express the feelings and opinions of the President when I say that we are fighting only to preserve the integrity of the Union and the constitutional authority of the General Government.

The inhabitants of Kentucky may rely upon it that their domestic institutions will in no manner be interfered with and that they will receive at our hands every constitutional protection. I have only to repeat that you will in all respects carefully regard the local institutions of the region in which you command allowing nothing but the dictates of military necessity to cause you to depart from the spirit of these instructions.

So McClellan repeated a sentiment common in the North in Fall 1861, especially within the Lincoln administration, that Union policy toward slaves must be guided by the necessity of keeping the loyalty of the slaveholders in critical border states like Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. Yet as this policy was already being undermined by the distaste of many Union soldiers for slavery, especially now that they were encamped in slave states and could see it firsthand, and the realization that slaves could do useful work for the army. Yet none of this would have happened had not many slaves, individually and in groups, presented themselves to Union forces and refused to be ignored. And this contraband phenomenon would only grow further in late Fall 1861, as Union forces moved for the first time in large numbers into the coastal areas of the Deep South, where the concentration of slaves was considerably greater than in the border states.


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.

3 Responses to The Contraband Flood Spreads

  1. Gil Wilson says:

    Well I am just shocked….John Henry Lane organizing the first African-American regiment? How about Hunter’s 1st South Carolina organized in May of 1862 and Company A which survived all the way to being “officially” recognized. 1st soldier down, John Brown, 1st South Carolina, Company A killed August 8, 1862 on St. Simons island. I always thought of the 1st South Carolina as your regiment. It’s how you got me interested in the USCT.

  2. Jean Libby says:

    Another really excellent and thorough history.

  3. I think a critical line in the Lane letter is this, ” My brigade is not here for the purpose of interfering in anywise with the institution of slavery. They shall not become negro thieves nor shall they be prostituted into negro-catchers. The institution of slavery must take care of itself.” It was the core of the resistance in the 1850s to the Fugitive Slave Act. Most free state citizens didn’t much like slavery but were not disposed to actively attack it. (Many didn’t particularly like blacks, either.). However, no matter how racist, there was real resistance to the idea of being turned into slave-catchers.

    I don’t envy any commander in the western theater the complexities of dealing with the situation in Kentucky. However, when the demand for return of a slave who made it into Union lines came from a Confederate, I suspect that, in the Union camp, it was somewhat mindboggling to have a Confederate, especially an officer, baldly assert a right under a flag and Constitution which he was bearing arms against. It rather reminds me of the definition of chutzpah-A man murders his mother and father and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.

    The truth is somewhere in the middle. The once popular idea of the slave passively waiting for enlightened white men to remove their shackles has been thoroughly discredited. The slaves’ actions in freeing themselves clearly forced the issue. However, I’ve never totally bought that the idea that this self-help was the but-for factor that FORCED the government to deal with it. The governments, first British and then US, had worked very hard to ignore them in the nearly 250 years between the first purchase of slaves for Jamestown and the issuance of the provisional and final EPs. The US government then did a formidable job in ignoring blacks for nearly a century after Reconstruction ended, even when many black people were living in the quasi-slavery of peonage in the Deep South. IMHO, in the Civil War, the pro-slavery forces, in a stunning example of the law of unintended consequences, created, through secession, the point where it became in free whites’ best interests NOT to ignore the concerted efforts of people of color, be they enslaved, escaped, free or freed, to be free.

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