Emancipation in the Civil War is mostly a story of slaves throwing off the shackles of slavery to gain their freedom. Occasionally, however, for some African Americans things worked the other way around, at least temporarily. That is, occasionally free blacks from the North fell into Confederate hands and for a time became slaves.
One example of this phenomenon is the case of John A. Emery of Salem, Massachusetts. Emery, a free black man, was hired as a servant by Lt. Col. Arthur F. Devereaux of the 16th Massachusetts Infantry before the regiment left its home state. During Summer 1862, the regiment participated in George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, including the battles of the Seven Days. Emery, who had fallen sick during the campaign had to be left at the Savage Station Field Hospital when it fell into Confederate hands after Union forces retreated to the James River. His case became public when letters about his case were published in the August 15, 1862 edition of The Liberator, the famous abolitionist publication edited by William Lloyd Garrison.
The Liberator article read:
Selling the Servants of Union Officers Into Slavery!
The following correspondence between John S. Rock. Esq., ad Wm. H. Page, M.D., who was especially detailed by Governor Andrew to go out to the Army of the Potomac to assist in the care of the sick and wounded Massachusetts soldiers, and who was taken prisoner at the recent battles before Richmond, is another proof of the rascality of the Confederate authorities:
Wm. H. Page, M.D.: Dear Sir,–I have been requested to ask you if it is true that when colored servants of Union officers are taken prisoners by the rebels, they are sold into slavery? and also if it is true that John A. Emery, a colored boy from Salem, and servant to Lieut. Col. Devereaux of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment, was taken with you a prisoner at the recent battles before Richmond, and sold into slavery? An early reply will greatly oblige.
John S. Rock, Esq.: Dear Sir,–Your note of this date has just come to hand. In answer to your questions, I have to say that a colored boy of 17 years, named John A. Emery, servant to Lieut. Col. Devereaux, of the 19th Mass. Regiment, was left sick with fever (from which he is now well) at Savage Station Hospital, on the retreat of our army to James River; that I attempted to bring him away as my servant; but when we arrived at Richmond, he was immediately taken from me in accordance with a recent order of the Confederate Government, which demands the seizure of all persons of color found among prisoners taken from us, and the selling of them into slavery. I was told of this order by numerous Confederate officers who called at our hospital, and I tried to get him to go with one of them as a servant, who promised me to use him well; but he preferred to take his chances of getting away with us. I was also told by Confederate officers that another order had also been issued, commanding all persons of color taken with arms in their hands to be shot. His mother, Elizabeth Emery, lives [at] 106 Essex street, Salem, whom you will please inform of the facts of her son.
There is no atrocity that the traitorous men-stealers of the South are not capable of perpetrating.
John S. Rock, of course, was the famous black abolitionist leader, who later went on to become the first African American to be accepted into the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. As an important black leader in Massachusetts, it is not surprising that Rock would intercede on behalf of Emery’s mother to learn of his fate. Unfortunately, despite a diligent search of web sources I have been unable to locate any additional information on John A. Emery. Are any readers knowledgeable about the case and able to shed light here on what became of this man? Did he survive the war and return to Massachusetts or perish as a slave in Confederate custody? In any case, when free blacks from the North went South in the Civil War, they accepted a risk that white Northerners did not share. The risk of being captured and made a slave.