Slaveholders Strike Back, Part 1

In late Spring 1862, if abolitionists believed that slaveholders in Union-controlled territory were willing passively to let slavery die, they were sorely mistaken. Civil War Emancipation has already dealt with Maryland slaveholders pursuing fleeing slaves into the District of Columbia after emancipation there in April 1862. These slaveholders were largely thwarted by Gen. James S. Wadsworth, commander of Union forces in Washington, D.C., but their pressure was more than enough to compel Ward Lamon, the federal marshal for the nation’s capital (and a close friend of Abraham Lincoln) to make genuine efforts to reclaim their human property under 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act. Wadsworth and Lamon would spare during Summer 1862 over whether the marshal would be allowed to enforce this law, with the general usually getting his way, until Wadsworth was reassigned in early September.

Part of James Wadsworth’s problem with Maryland slaveholder’s reclaiming their slaves in the District, besides his passionate abolitionist sentiments, was that the loyalty of many of them was questionable. It was not just Maryland slaveholders entering the District in pursuit of slaves whose loyalty came under question, but also slave owners in Maryland’s southern counties seeking to reclaim their slaves that had gained sanctuary with federal troops. So the New York Times reported on June 3, 1862. It quoted the report of an officer in Gen. Joseph Hooker’s command, which had operated in southern Maryland before the start of George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. It read:

I observe that the slaveholders of Lower Maryland are taking advantage of the Fugitive Slave law to reclaim their fugacious servants. The theatre of operations of this brigade previous to the siege of Yorktown, was Lower Maryland, and it is but proper that the people should know what every officer and man in the brigade is fully familiar with. No more disloyal people exist in this country than the slaveholding aristocracy of Charles and St. Mary’s Counties. Threats were made that the negroes, who alone were loyal, and who gave the information by which the mail routes to Secessia were broken up, arms and uniforms taken, and prominent traitors arrested, that the negroes would “get h — l as soon as that d — d Sickles Brigade got out of the way.” When the brigade embarked, the slaves, having the fear of Jack Scroggins before their eyes, skedaddled, and now these disloyal masters are trying to get them again in their clutches. As a proof of the moral principle of these slave-hunters, it should be known that on several occasions prominent men, and in one case, an office-holder, elected on a secesh ticket, were caught claiming as their slaves free negroes, brought from the North as the servants of officers, and a few months ago (and probably until his day) the authorities of one of the counties mentioned held in slavery, and employed his services for the county, the slave of a person who, since the breaking out of the rebellion, has been an officer in the rebel navy. And such are the men who, disloyal to their country, with their sons in the rebel army, and they themselves only restrained from active treason by armed National soldiers, are now taking advantage of the laws of a country they repudiate, to wreak their vengeance on their loyal, but fugacious servants.

To be sure these men, when in Washington, all profess to be Unionists, and some have gone through what they consider the farce of taking the oath of allegiance. It is a farce to expect such men to keep an oath, and it was well hit off the other day by a squad of northern mudsills, who have so worried the snobbish Maryland aristocracy.

Clearly, in late Spring 1862, Maryland slaveholders were still eager to defend the peculiar institution in their state, and even disloyal slave owners were prepared to use the auspices of the federal government to do so, even if they had to feign loyalty to gain its cooperation. This was bad news for the slaves of Southern Maryland ready to support the federal army they hoped would help them gain their freedom, but such were the horrible ironies and absurdities of the American Civil War and the unsteady progress of emancipation in it.


[Personal Note: my apologies for lack of posts of late. I was in Louisville, Kentucky, from May 31 to June 8 to participate in scoring essays of the 2012 AP U.S. History exam, and was hard-pressed to keep up with my online classes, let alone work at this blog.]

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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