The Power of Collective Will

Before moving on to 1862, Civil War Emancipation takes a last look at 1861, and how the collective will of many humble people thwarted and frustrated the powerful.

In the last months of 1861, top Union officers struggled to control the stream of fugitive slaves seeking refuge within their lines. The problem was aggravated by the fact much of the Union army in late 1861 was encamped in the un-seceded slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Under the terms of August’s Confiscation Act, Unionist slaveholders still had a claim to their human property, but even as some leading federal officers proved sympathetic to loyal slaveholders, they discovered they had to reckon with the collective will of the slaves and ordinary soldiers, which was often at odds with their policies.

Civil War Emancipation has dealt before with this developing situation in its edition of November 5, 2011. It also addressed in a later post Gen. Henry Halleck’s order of November 20, 1861, prohibiting fugitive slaves in Missouri from entering Union lines on the ridiculous grounds that some were Confederate spies. Halleck’s belief that he could with the stroke of a pen exclude Missouri slaves from his lines proved fanciful, as were other Union commanders that tried handle the same problem in a similar fashion.

The reason exclusionary policies failed was the collective will of countless ordinary people who opposed these mandates from on high. Escaped slaves proved a useful source of labor for the Union Army, and the slave of loyal owner generally performed that work as well as slaves of disloyal owners subject to the Confiscation Act. Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, recognized this fact when he wrote Gen. Benjamin Butler at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, on May 30, 1861, stating, “You will employ fugitive in the service to which they may be best adapted, keeping an account of the labor by them performed, of the value of it and of the expense of their maintenance. The question of their final disposition will be reserved for future determination.” He furthered clarified this guidance to Butler on August 8, 1861, writing:

It seems quite clear that the substantial rights of loyal masters will be best protected by receiving such fugitives as well as fugitives from disloyal masters into the service of the United States, and employing them under such organizations and in such occupations as circumstances may suggest or require. Of course a record should be kept showing the name and description of the fugitives, the name and the character as loyal or disloyal of the master, and such facts as may be necessary to a correct understanding of the circumstances of each case after tranquility shall have been restored. Upon the return of peace Congress will doubtless properly provide for all the persons thus received into the service of the Union and for just compensation to loyal masters. In this way only it would seem can the duty and safety of the Government and the just rights of all be fully reconciled and harmonized.

If there was a serious fault to Cameron’s policy of giving refuge all slaves, putting them to work, and sorting out their status after the war, it was the will of slaveholders–disloyal as well as loyal–who tried to reclaim their human property from Union army camps. Many Union soldiers and officers disliked such efforts and actively obstructed them, even as top Union commanders tried to accommodate slave owners searching for fugitive slaves in the interest of promoting loyalty in the Border States and because they believed African Americans’ presence was disruptive to military disciple.

Union troops frustrating slave owners and their agents received the moral support of abolitionist politicians. Civil War Emancipation in its issue of July 8, 2011 discussed the U.S. House Resolution of July 9, 1861, absolving the Union Army of slave catching. This resolution was not binding, so for the rest of 1861 army policy toward fugitive slaves remained unclear both inside and outside the army. High-ranking commanders, conscious of the strategic importance of the loyal slave states, tended to favor returning/excluding fugitive slaves in army camps to promote Union sentiment, but many junior officers and enlisted men, exposed to haughty slaveholders and clearly abused slaves (who were useful around camp) often sought to frustrate slave catchers.

Abolitionist politicians opposed to the army returning fugitive slaves grew bolder toward the end of 1861. For example, on December 7, 1861, John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts, wrote Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, demanding he issue orders to prevent officers from ordering their men to take part in efforts of owners seeking to reclaim their slaves. His letter stated:

I invoke your interposition not only now but for the future for the issue of such orders as will secure the soldiers of this Commonwealth from being participators in such dirty and despotic work. Massachusetts does not send her citizens forth to become the hunters of men or to engage in the seizure and return to captivity of persons claimed to be fugitive slaves without any recognition or even the forms of law; and I trust you will save our soldiers and our State from such dishonor by the exercise of your official authority in such manner as will insure the protection of our men from such outrages in future and humanity itself from such infractions under color of military law and duty.

Andrew soon afterwards became involved in a testy exchange of letters with Gen. George McClellan, then the Union Army’s commander-in-chief. Andrew had sought to censure a captain in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, who had taken a leading role in returning two African Americans to slavery. McClellan resented Andrew’s interference in the affairs of the now federalized regiment, and did not share the governor’s concern for fugitive slaves.

When Congress came back into session in December 1861, its mood clearly was more supportive of Andrew than McClellan. It issued two resolutions, one (dated December 20) making it harder to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by requiring documentary proof of ownership and the other (dated December 23) prohibiting army officers from returning fugitive slaves (and dismissing them from the army if they did anyway). Both resolutions directed the relevant committees to draft legislation to carry out these aims, and resulting bills which would become law the following spring.

The increasingly abolitionist stance of Congress reflected the growing mood in the North, which saw the war as essentially pointless unless slavery ended, since if it did not another war over slavery would sooner or later break out. Even some elements in the border states warmed to abolition as 1861 drew to a close. A Connecticut man, in Missouri to convince his sister and her family to return North to escape the state’s unrest, wrote Gen. Henry Halleck, on November 30, 1861, complaining that local Unionist home guards in Johnson County led by German-Americans, were intimidating into the local population that favored Halleck’s policies. The letter added:

It is known as a fact not disputed here by any one that sundry runaway slaves, three or four at least, are now openly harbored in the camp of the home guards at the fair-grounds at this post and all efforts of their owners to recover them have proven fruitless. These same slaves often appear in U. S. uniform and on one occasion at least had U. S. arms placed in their hands and acted the part of U. S. soldiers inside of the intrenchments here. Surely the Government is not so hard off for soldiers that we have to arm negroes to sustain it. If so I am for peace. When it comes to arming negroes to shoot down and slay our rebellious Southern kindred I, a loyal Connecticut Yankee and proud of the name, will have no hand in it unless I turn rebel against such an infamous policy; but I am for the Union as our fathers fashioned it and all righteous efforts to preserve the same.

Of course, probably some of the most effective obstruction of Union commanders like George McClellan and Henry Halleck came from the slaves themselves. Despite efforts to exclude them from Union lines, they kept coming and did what they could to frustrate efforts to remove them from army encampments. Major George E. Waring, commanding the Frémont Hussars, wrote an instructive letter is this regard to his division commander, on December 19, 1861, seeking guidance with his efforts to carry out Halleck’s order to exclude fugitive slaves from Union lines. His letter stated:

I caused all negroes in my camp to be examined and it was reported to me that they all stoutly asserted that they were free. Since that time a woman employed in my own mess as cook has been claimed by one Captain Holland as the fugitive slave of his father-in-law. In compliance with your order to that end which he produced she was given up to him. Since the receipt of your circular of to-day I have again caused an investigation to be thoroughly made which has resulted as in the first instance. I beg now, general, to ask for your instructions in the matter. These negroes all claim and insist that they are free. Some of them I have no question are so; others I have as little doubt have been slaves but no one is here to prove it and I hesitate to take so serious a responsibility as to decide arbitrarily in the absence of any direct evidence that they are such. If I turn them away I inflict great hardship upon them as they would be homeless and helpless; furthermore such a course would occasion much personal inconvenience and sincere regret to other officers no less than to myself. These people are mainly our servants and we can get no others. They have been employed in this capacity for some time-long enough for us to like them as servants, to find them useful and trustworthy and to feel an interest in their welfare. The commanding-general in his letter to Colonel Blair as published in the Missouri Democrat of the 16th instant says in explanation of General Orders, No. 3, “Unauthorized persons, black or white, free or slave, must be kept out of our camps.” The negroes in my camp are employed in accordance with the Army Regulations as officers’ servants, teamsters and hospital attendants and with the exception of one little child are such as we are authorized to have in the camp. It seems to me that they are without the pale of the order and the intention of the commanding general, and I trust that I may be excused for awaiting-more explicit instructions before doing what may be an extra-official act at which my private feelings revolt.

Waring’s letter embodied many of the factors at work frustrating efforts of top Union commanders to ignore slavery by excluding the slaves or return them to slavery. This problem would continue into 1862 because the slaves refused to be ignored and the mass of Union officers and soldiers refused to ignore them. Union commanders could issue as many orders as they wished to exclude slaves, but they were futility itself in opposition to the power of the collective will opposing them.


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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