Consequences of D.C. Emancipation

By May 1862, the consequences of emancipation in Washington, D.C. were beginning to become clear. One early effect came from turning the District of Columbia into free territory. It created a potential refuge for slaves in Maryland, especially the counties near the federal capital, which were not accustomed to adjoining free soil. And not surprisingly, Maryland’s slaves, who generally were not  subject to the provisions of the First Confiscation Act, hastened to take advantage. The New York Times reported on May 2, 1862:

It is asserted, upon good authority, that since the District Emancipation bill passed, over one thousand fugitive slaves have come into this District from Maryland. Most of them throw themselves under the protection of the military Committee, commanded by Gen. WADSWORTH. Notwithstanding that most of these negroes declare that their masters are rebels, many of the latter have caused writs for the arrest of their slaves to be put into the hands of Marshal LAMON, and under the Fugitive Slave law he must execute the warrants or suffer the extreme penalty of the law, which is very severe. The slave-owners threaten him with suits in each case if he falls to execute the writ. The fine in each case is one thousand dollars. Every attempt thus far made to arrest the alleged fugitives has been resisted by the military authorities, who declare that the slaves are the property of rebels. Whether they are or not, the Marshal says the claimants all express a willingness to take the oath of allegiance. This looks very much like a conflict between the civil and military authorities. Congress should interfere at once in the Marshal’s behalf, or we shall have any quantity of fugitive slave claims pending before Congress very shortly.

As the Times article indicates, ending slavery in Washington, D.C., created problems for the federal government that in retrospect seem predictable, but at the time apparently took federal authorities by surprise. The “conflict between the civil and military authorities,” as the article described it, largely came because Congress had recently prohibited army officers from returning slaves to their masters. Rather than risk being cashiered, the military committee officers in Washington, D.C., granted protection to the  slaves fleeing into the District of Columbia. The Maryland slaves shrewdly claimed their owners were rebels, which in most cases was probably untrue. But it obliged the army to offer them protection, which created a headache for the top law enforcement official there, Federal Marshal Ward Lamon, a close friend and associate of Abraham Lincoln. Lamon still was bound by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, at least for the slaves of loyal owners.  Little wonder the New York Times was calling upon Congress to intervene in the controversy. Congress had created the problem in the first place by prohibiting the army from returning slaves which interfered with implementing the Fugitive Slave Act. Which without doubt was an intent of the new law.

Of course, the laws would not have been effectively in conflict if not for the initiative of slaves seeking freedom. Maryland slaves fleeing into the District of Columbia in Spring 1862 foreshadowed what would ultimately destroy slavery in the loyal border states and elsewhere. It was not possible to end slavery some jurisdictions, while leaving it legal in others especially if they were nearby. Just as in Spring 1862, slaves would seek to take advantage of freedom in their vicinity, and if that was not possible find other paths to freedom, such as military service in the Union Army, or simply refusing to obey their owners anymore. The last option became increasingly feasible as the war made slavery’s enforcement system increasingly unworkable, which can be seen in this instance from Ward Lamon’s difficulties in implementing the Fugitive Slave Act. Maryland slaveholders could threaten Lamon all they wanted with lawsuits and fines to force him to return their slaves, but with the Union Army taking the slaves’ side such efforts proved ineffectual. Hence, slaves fleeing into the District of Columbia in Spring 1862 is a good example of the initiative of the slaves during the Civil War combined with military force prompted by legislative action effecting emancipation in actuality if not formally.

So slavery, practically speaking, did not die in the United States through grand pronouncements like Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment, but little by little, by the actions of multiple actors (soldiers, slaves, politicians, etc.) sometimes acting intentionally to strike a blow for abolition, but just as likely as not in the case of these Union officers obeying the new law prohibiting them from returning slaves to the owners.


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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1 Response to Consequences of D.C. Emancipation

  1. Pingback: Western Mass Civil War Sesquicentennial

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