Slaveholders Strike Back, Part 3 (or rebuking Gov. Stanly)

It was not just in Maryland that slaveholders, many of questionable loyalty, sought to enforce the fugitive slave law in Spring 1862. It also occurred in the Union enclave in North Carolina around New Bern, captured earlier in the year by troops under Ambrose Burnside. Seeking to revive a spirit of Unionism among North Carolinians, President Lincoln appointed Edward Stanly as military governor of the state in April 1862. Stanly was a North Carolina native who had served in its legislature and represented the state in the U.S. Congress as a Whig, before relocating to California in the mid-1850s where he joined the nascent Republican party. Wanting a North Carolina Unionist to give legitimacy to the federally created martial law government, Stanly was a logical choice. Accepting the post, he hastened from San Francisco, where he practiced law, to assume his new office in late May 1862.

Yet his governorship was quickly beset by controversy. After his arrival in New Bern in late May 1862, he began trying to enforce the state’s pre-war slave codes. Stanly closed a school for African Americans in New Bern recently founded by Vincent Colyer of the U.S. Christian Commission, citing North Carolina’s antebellum law against teaching slaves to read and write. He also allowed a local slaveholder, Nicolas Bray, who as willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States, to attempt reclaim his slaves that had been liberated by Union soldiers.

As a native Southerner, Edward Stanly saw slavery as integral institution to his home state, one that needed to be protected and enforced for reasons of both law and custom, especially if his administration had any hope of gaining support among the North Carolina’s white population. Stanly wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on June 12, 1862:

Almost all the [white] inhabitants have gone away, and the belief still exists that it is dangerous for them to return.

The Confederates refuse to allow anyone to come to this place–keeping away even women and children. Unless I can give them some assurance this is a war of restoration, and not of abolition and destruction, no peace can be restored here for many years to come.

It is a testament to how much things had changed since the beginning of the war, that Edward Stanly’s actions, which in Spring 1861 most white Northerners would have thought proper, brought him instead condemnation in Spring 1862. This reaction also came from the Lincoln administration that had so recently appointed him. While in May/June 1862 they did not want David Hunter in South Carolina implementing his own plan of emancipation, neither did they wish Gov. Stanly in North Carolina trying to turn back the clock to before the war by enforcing prewar slave codes. It quickly disavowed his actions. As the pro-administration New York Times opined:

Gov. STANLY probably believes that unless this apprehension on the part of the people can be corrected, there is very little hope of converting them into loyal Unionists; and he feels it to be, therefore, his first duty to show his determination, as the representative of the National Government, to maintain the laws and usages of Slavery precisely as they existed before the rebellion.

But while we judge his motives thus charitably, we cannot indorse the wisdom of his action. The National Government is not bound thus to become the active agent in executing the worst and most barbarous edicts of Slavery. It cannot do so without giving Slavery a position of power and supremacy it has never yet held in our Government, and which, we trust, it is not to gain by the rebellion. It is one thing to leave Slavery alone, and quite another to undertake the positive maintenance of its authority and the execution of its worst atrocities. If the General Government assumes such duties, it will speedily find itself responsible for Slavery itself, and compelled to answer at the world’s bar for permitting its existence.

Despite the expectation that the Lincoln administration would quickly replace Edward Stanly, he retained his post. As a prominent Southern Unionist, willing to serve to serve the federal government in his native state at great personal risk, no doubt Lincoln and Stanton believed he would be too difficult to replace. Rebuked by Stanton, Stanly remained in office until March 1863, when he resigned as the Lincoln administration began to implement the Emancipation Proclamation in Eastern North Carolina, an area that had not been exempted from the provisions of this document. Clearly, there were limits to even Stanly’s Unionism. He did not join the Confederacy, but he returned to California and resumed his law practice, dying there in 1872.

To be fair to Edward Stanly, around the same time, none other than Gen. Benjamin Butler, creator of the contraband of war policy, by then commandant of Union-occupied New Orleans, was allowing some slaveholders in Louisiana to reclaim their slaves for basically the same reason as Stanly–to encourage Unionist sentiment. Quoting the New Orleans Picayune the New York Times reported on June 14, 1862:

We understand that within the last day or two, Gen. BUTLER has ordered the return of quite a number of slaves, who were in the Custom-house, to their ownners and their homes. Among others, we hear that six slaves were sent by Gen. BUTLER’s orders, in irons, to their owners across the lake. We are glad to hear of this very proper action on the part of the Commanding General. The runaways who hope, by going to the Custom-house, to escape from service, will now find that hope delusive, and by and by they will be satisfied that “there is no place like home.”

If there was a difference between Ben Butler and Edward Stanly it was Butler did not shut down schools serving contraband slaves or enforce any other antebellum slave codes, actions that struck most white Northerners by that time as especially cruel. He also soon stopped after the Times article to return any slaves at all, even if slaveholders professed loyalty.

Indeed, if the troubles of Edward Stanly, David Hunter, and Ben Butler in late Spring 1862 demonstrate anything, it is to clarify the Lincoln administration’s position at that moment toward slavery. It was committed to encouraging voluntary emancipation in the South, which was why Lincoln rebuked his friend, Hunter, who had tried to emancipate immediately slaves in his own command. Yet Lincoln also was not willing to allow well-meaning Southern Unionists like Stanly to act as if the war had never occurred, even in the name of promoting loyalty to the federal government. Perhaps Butler, the cagey politician, had the temperature of the moment right, expediently appeasing slaveholders in New Orleans under the administration’s policies, but attune to the unstable political winds toward slavery in the North in May/June 1862. At the moment opinion there on the exact future of slavery was fluid, feeling its way toward a workable resolution. It is not surprising that some federal officers and officials ran afoul of the treacherous political currents.

Sources: 1); 2); 3); 3) Judkin Browning, Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

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