Giving Massa Notice


“Giving Massa Notice,” Harper’s Weekly, 10 January 1863.


The cartoon is captioned: POMPEY. “What day ob de month id dis, Massa?” MASTER. “Twenty-sixth December. Why?” POMPEY. “Oh! cause you knows Massa LINKUM he gib us our Papers on de First January, God bless um; and now I wants to say as how you allus was a good Massa, and so I’ll gib you a Mont’s Notice to git anudder Boy. Niggers is powerful cheap now, Massa!”


As is quite well-known, the Emancipation Proclamation did not cover slaves in the loyal border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Abraham Lincoln did not want to risk alienating Unionists slaveholders there by taking their slaves and he did not believe that his power as commander-in-chief, which he had used to free slaves in the rebellious states as a military necessity, extended to states that were ostensibly loyal.

Yet that did not mean that the Emancipation Proclamation did not have a powerful effect in the border states that had stayed in the Union. Some slaves in these states asserted that the proclamation covered them, even if it really did not. The New York Times reported on January 8:

Large numbers of the slaves in the lower counties of Maryland, since the Christmas Holidays, have refused to go to work for their masters unless they are paid wages for their labor, alleging that they became free on the 1st of January by the Proclamation of Emancipation. The masters are afraid to employ force, lest thereby they incur the vengeance of the “chattels,” and drive them into acts of violence, for which, it is said, the negroes are fully prepared. Some of the slaveholders, in order to settle the matter amicably, and “preserve peace” in the family, have agreed to pay their slaves wages; others, however, have refused, and their negroes are escaping in quantities.

Two years ago the ringleaders in a movement of this kind would have been seized and hung without process of law. Now, the slaves are ready to meet the responsibility of their acts, and to defend themselves.

No doubt many slaves in Maryland appreciated that they had not been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but that recognized that it put slavery in their state on life support and shifted the balance of power between themselves and their owners in their favor. So much so that they could openly challenge the peculiar institution, an act that as the article points outs only a few years before would have put their lives in serious danger.

With the Emancipation Proclamation, except in its border with Delaware, Maryland was now in essence surrounded by free territory or territory that would be come free with a successful conclusion of the war for the Union. Slaves could easily flee out of Maryland, especially with the enforcement mechanisms of slavery in the state gravely weakened by the war, most noticeably by the Union Army, which since the earliest months of the conflict had become a refuge there for many slaves escaping from their masters.

Slaves had demanded wages before (in areas of Northern Virginia under Union occupation) and would later many times demand wages elsewhere. The catalysts were the arrival or prospect of the arrival of the Union Army, and the breakdown of the means to enforce slavery as men who would have joined slave patrols instead went into the Confederate Army and usually were taken far from home. Yet the Emancipation Proclamation too had a corrosive impact on slavery in the border states by undermining its legitimacy, enforceability, and unintentionally giving slaves the sense it had freed them, even if it formally had not. In this respect, as in others, Lincoln’s proclamation was a game changer in terms of expectations even if the President had not intended it to function in that manner.


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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2 Responses to Giving Massa Notice

  1. Robyn says:

    I absolutely love, love, love your blog and its the first one I read when I have time. My ancestors were from Maryland (both the Eastern Shore and Southern counties). As someone who has been researching and teaching African-American genealogy for many years, your blog and other writings are a must. I bought your Voices of Emancipation when it first came out and still consider that a groundbreaking book in terms of its analysis of the lives of the enslaved as seen through the pensions.I also have your book on the lives of black ex-Civil War soldiers. I enjoyed this post and I shared it during my lecture on the enslaved yesterday at a historical conference here in Maryland. Keep doing the great work you’re doing; keep sharing and opening up these lives for us.

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