Ben Butler Faces The Future

If anyone was at the epicenter of emancipation in the late spring and summer of 1861, it was Gen. Benjamin Butler, commanding federal forces in and around Fortress Monroe, Virginia. It was he who made the fateful decision in late May not to return three fugitives to their rebel owners. It was he who dealt with the hundreds of other escaped slaves that subsequently sought sanctuary at Fortress Monroe and devised a crafty justification for keeping them without challenging slavery’s legality. By the end of July though his situation had reached a crisis point. In the wake of the Union defeat at Bull Run/Manassas part of his command was withdrawn to bolster the defenses of Washington, D.C. against a possible Confederate attack. The general was obliged to consolidate his own lines to maintain a defensible position, requiring Butler to abandon the nearby town of Hampton, which he had been fortifying as a refuge for the slaves. The predicament forced Butler to confront the future and to ask his superiors in the federal capital what would become of the “contraband of war.”

Ben Butler’s thoughts on this subject appear in a letter to Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, dated July 30, 1861. He wrote:

This ordering away the troops from this department, while it weakened the posts at Newport’s News, necessitated the withdrawal of the troops from Hampton, where I was then throwing up intrenched works, to enable me to hold the town with a small force, while I advanced up the York or James River. In the village of Hampton there were a large number of negroes, composed, in a great measure, of women and children of the men who had fled thither within my lines for protection, who had escaped from maurauding parties of rebels who had been gathering up able-bodied blacks to aid them in constructing their batteries on the James and York Rivers. I had employed the men in Hampton in throwing up intrenchments, and they were working zealously and efficiently at that duty, saving our soldiers from that labor, under the gleam of the mid-day sun. The women were earning substantially their own subsistance in washing, marketing, and taking care of the clothes of the soldiers, and rations were being served out to the men who worked for the support of the children. But by the evacuation of Hampton, rendered necessary by the withdrawal of troops, leaving me scarcely 5,000 men outside the Fort, including the force at Newport’s News, all these black people were obliged to break up their homes at Hampton, fleeing across the creek within my lines for protection and support. Indeed it was a most distressing sight to see these poor creatures, who had trusted to the protection of the arms of the United States, and who aided the troops of the United States in their enterprise, to be thus obliged to flee from their homes, and the homes of their masters, who had deserted them, and become not fugitives from fear of the return of the rebel soldiery, who had threatened to shoot the men who had wrought for us, and to carry off the women who had served us to a worse than Egyptian bondage. I have therefore now within the Peninsula, this side of Hampton Creek, 900 negroes, 300 of whom are able-bodied men, 30 of whom are men substantially past hard labor, 175 women, 225 children under the age of 10 years, and 170 between 10 and 18 years, and many more coming in. The questions which this state of facts present are very embarrassing.

An interesting aspect of the letter is the genuine concern Butler displays for the escaped slaves within his lines. While he might have given them sanctuary initially in a calculated act of self-interest to deny their labor to his enemies, the July 30 letter demonstrates that he had grown to care for them as people and was loath to have them fall back into Confederate hands “to a worse than Egyptian bondage.”

In that context, the question Benjamin Butler asked Cameron next makes not only military sense, but also further shows his humanitarian feelings. Butler wrote:

First — What shall be done with them? and, Second, What is their state and condition?

Upon these questions I desire the instructions of the Department.

The first question, however, may perhaps be answered by considering the last. Are these men, women, and children, slaves? Are they free? Is their condition that of men, women, and children, or that of property, or is it a mixed relation? What their status was under the Constitution and laws, we all know. What has been the effect of rebellion and a state of war upon that status? When I adopted the theory of treating the able-bodied negro fit to work in the trenches, as property liable to be used in aid of rebellion, and so contraband of war, that condition of things was in so far met as I then and still believe, on a legal and constitutional basis. But now a new series of questions arise. Passing by women, the children certainly cannot be treated on that basis; if property, they must be considered the incumbrance, rather than the auxiliary of an army, and of course, in no possible legal relation, could be treated as contraband. Are they property? If they were so they have been left by their masters and owners, deserted, thrown away, abandoned, like the wrecked vessel upon the ocean. Their former possessors and owners have causelessly, traitorously, rebelliously, and, to carry out the figure practically abandoned them to be swallowed up by the Winter storm of starvation. If property, do they not become the property of the salvors? But we, their salvors, do not need and will not hold such property, and will assume no such ownership. Has not, therefore, all proprietary relation ceased? Have they not become thereupon men, women and children? No longer under ownership of any kind, the fearful relicts of fugitive masters, have they not by their masters’ acts and the state of war assumed the condition, which we hold to be the normal one, of those made in God’s image? Is not every constitutional, legal and moral requirement, as well to the runaway master as their relinquished slaves, thus answered? I confess that my own mind is compelled by this reasoning to look upon them as men and women. If not free born, yet free, manumitted, sent forth from the hand that held them never to be reclaimed.

Of course, if this reasoning thus imperfectly set forth is correct, my duty as a humane man is very plain. I should take the same care of these men, women and children, houseless, homeless and unprovided for, as I would of the same number of men, women and children who, for their attachment to the Union, had been driven or allowed to flee from the Confederate States. I should have no doubt on this question, had I not seen it stated that an order had been issued by Gen. MCDOWELL, in his department, substantially forbidding all fugitive slaves from coming within his lines or being harbored there. Is that order to be enforced in all Military Departments? If so, who are to be considered fugitive slaves? Is a slave to be considered fugitive whose master runs away and leaves him? Is it forbidden to the troops to aid or harbor within their lines the negro children who are found therein, or is the soldier, when his march has destroyed their means of subsistence, to allow them to starve because he has driven off the rebel master? Now, shall the commander of regiment or battalion sit in judgment upon the question, whether any given black man has fled from his master, or his master fled from him? Indeed, how are the free born to be distinguished? Is one any more or less a fugitive slave because he has labored on the rebel intrenchments? If he has so labored, if I understand it, he is to be harbored. By the reception of which are the rebels most to be distressed, by taking those who have wrought all their rebel masters desired, masked their battery, or those who have refused to labor, and left the battery unmasked?

I have very decided opinions upon the subject of this order. It does not become me to criticise it, and I write in no spirit of criticism, but simply to explain the full difficulties that surround the enforcing it. If the enforcement of that order becomes the policy of the Government, I, as a soldier, shall be bound to enforce it steadfastly, if not cheerfully. But if left to my own discretion, as you may have gathered from my reasoning, I should take a widely different course from that which it indicates.

In a loyal State I would put down a servile insurrection. In a state of rebellion I would confiscate that which was used to oppose my arms, and take all that property, which constituted the wealth of that State, and furnished the means by which the war is prosecuted, beside being the cause of the war; and if, in so doing, it should be objected that human beings were brought to the free enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, such objections might not require much consideration.

Pardon me for addressing the Secretary of War directly upon this question, as it involves some political considerations, as well as propriety of military action.

In essence, Ben Butler asked what was to become of the contraband slaves. Ultimately, would they be freed or in some fashion be returned to bondage? Butler clearly alluded to his preference (freedom) but also made clear he was ready to return the slaves to slavery if this became the policy enacted by government leaders. But the crisis prompted by the withdrawal of part of his army forced him to face the future of slavery. In the coming year, like Gen. Benjamin Butler, other Union leaders would be forced to confront the same question, in the end leading to the Confiscation Acts, the Emancipation Proclamation, and ultimately the 13th Amendment.

Source: Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler During the Period of the Civil War, Vol 1. (Norwood, Mass.: The Plimpton Press, 1917), 185-88 and

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Were There Black Soldiers in July 1861? Part 2

Yesterday’s Disunion in the New York Times has a timely piece written by Kate Masur, which provides additional perspective on whether African Americans served as soldiers in the early months of the Civil War. In it, she recounts the story of John Parker, who with three other slaves unwillingly fought for the Confederacy as artillerymen at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas. Masur writes:

On the morning of Sunday, July 21, 1861, John Parker and three other men opened fire on Union forces. In the chaos of the Civil War’s first major battle, the group, which was operating a cannon, “couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”

Like so many men on both sides who experienced war for the first time that day, Parker was terrified. “The balls from the Yankee guns fell thick all around,” he later told a reporter. “In one battery a shell burst and killed 20, the rest ran. Thank the Lord! none were killed in our battery. I felt bad all the time, and thought every minute my time would come; I felt so excited that I hardly knew what I was about, and felt worse than dead.”

Parker and his comrades’ lives depended on their competence with the gun — but not in the usual way. All four men were slaves, ordered by their owners to fight for the Confederate cause. “We wish[ed] to our hearts that the Yankees would whip,” Parker recalled, “and we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.”

According to Masur, Parker began his Confederate service in a more conventional way: as a military laborer. She writes, “Parker was sent to build batteries and breastworks, first in Winchester and Fredericksburg and later, after the Confederate capital moved to Richmond, along the James River.” Some how he ended up manning a cannon with three other slaves during the first major battle of the war. Masur then continues:

Parker and others from his plantation remained near Manassas Junction for two weeks following the battle, stripping the Union soldiers of arms and other valuables and burying the soldiers of both armies. Then they returned home to their master’s plantation. Rejoining his wife, who lived on a neighboring farm, Parker discovered “all the cattle and mules gone, and corn all grownup with weeds.” “We didn’t care for that,” he said. “All we wanted was a chance to escape.”

Neo-Confederate writers have quoted selectively from John Parker’s story to argue that African Americans willingly fought for the Confederacy. But Parker and his comrades never doubted which side they were on. “Our masters tried all they could to make us fight,” he recounted. “They promised to give us our freedom and money besides, but none of us believed them; we only fought because we had to.”

Parker related his story to a Pennsylvania journalist after his escape to the North. It provides a useful microhistory perspective that further illuminates how both the Union and Confederate sides used African Americans in the early months of the conflict and what members of Congress were discussing in their floor debates on July 22 and July 23, 1861 (see Part 1 of this blog entry). Apparently, there were some slaveholders early on willing to arm their slaves and send them into battle. The May 10 edition of Civil War Emancipation discussed a proposal from a Georgia man to the Confederate Secretary of War to use small numbers of slaves as soldiers embedded with larger numbers of white troops who would keep them in line. Evidently, some Virginia slaveholders did something along these lines at First Bull Run/Manassas. It would help explain the July 15 edition of this blog, which featured slaves escaping to a Union navy ship near the mouth of the Rappahannock River because “the people on shore are about arming the Negroes with the intention of placing them in the front of Battle.” So it would seem that some African Americans were used by the Confederates at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas as soldiers in an ad hoc, piecemeal sort of way. This usage is certainly consistent with disorganized, improvisational nature of this engagement fought by inexperienced troops and commanders. It would be interesting to see if this limited and informal usage of African Americans in combat roles for the Confederacy occurred over the rest of the Civil War. In any case, a fine piece yesterday by Kate Masur in Disunion, both in terms of its insight and manner of presentation.

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Were There Black Soldiers in July 1861?

In blogs and internet discussion groups, Civil War buffs and scholars debate ad nauseam whether African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The topic generates enormous interest, but with little resolution despite the fact that reliable historical evidence strongly indicates that the Confederate government did not formally accept black men into armed service until the very eve of its defeat and that no official black Confederate unit ever saw combat. Indeed, the “debate” (if it can be called that since people tend to talk more past each other than to each other) over the existence of so-called black Confederates says more about Civil War memory in the early 21st century and the political agendas behind it than what actually occurred in the 1860s.

Part of the problem is that during the Civil War itself confusion existed early on about what roles African Americans had in both the Union and Confederate forces. Accounts and rumors of black Confederate soldiers popped up in the North in the first months of the war. For example, as Brooks Simpson has pointed out in his blog, Crossroads, neo-Confederates make much of a passage from Frederick Douglass in the September 1861 issue of his publication, Douglass’ Monthly. In the key part, Douglass wrote:

It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still.

Brooks Simpson asks some excellent questions about the passage dealing with what Douglass could have known personally about how African Americans were serving in the Confederate army (not much since he never personally observed the Confederate army during this period) and what was his agenda at the time (Douglass wanted black men to be able to enlist formally in the Union army, so armed service of African Americans in the Confederate army would have been a potent fact in favor of his argument). The logical implication is that Frederick Douglass evidently was either mistaken about armed black service for the Confederacy or was being disingenuous to advance his argument in favor of black enlistment in the Union army.

Or maybe he read the Congressional Globe, the Congressional Record of its day, recording and reporting on the proceedings of the U.S. Congress. In the Congressional Globe in late July 1861 members of Congress from both parties claimed to have seen armed black men in both northern and southern armies. Some having personally observed them with the Union army in Washington, D.C., after their arrival  for the special congressional session that started on July 4, 1861. Others having personally observed armed African Americans with both the Union and Confederate forces at the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas on July 21, 1861, fought close enough to the capital that many Washingtonians went to see the action, including members of Congress (one was even captured by Confederate forces).

Indeed, shortly after the battle, a trenchant exchange on the subject of African Americans with the armies occurred in the U.S. House of Representatives, recorded in the Congressional Globe. It began with a resolution offered on July 22, the day after the battle, by Charles A. Wyckliffe, representing Kentucky’s 5th District. The proposed resolution stated: “Resolved, That the Secretary of War be requested to inform this House whether the southern confederacy, or any State thereof, has within its military service any Indians; and, if so, what numbers and what tribes.

After quibbling over how to describe the Confederacy in a way that did not lend it legitimacy, William M. Dunn of Indiana, asked Wickliffe, “I hope the gentleman will also so amend the resolution as to insert the words ‘and negroes’ after the word “Indians.” Wickliffe replied, “I have not been informed that they have so employed negroes.” To which Dunn stated, “I have; and that they were firing upon our troops yesterday. I move so to amend the resolution.” The House agreed to Dunn’s amendment, and so the amended resolution passed the House.

However, that was not the end of the matter. The following day, July 23, 1861, another Kentucky representative, Henry Burnett proposed a related resolution. His contribution read “Resolved, That the Secretary of War inform this House whether there are any negroes in the Army of the United States which have been armed; whether there are negroes, the property of citizens of any of the revolted States, which have been used by the Army in any character of military duty, throwing up breastworks, making intrenchments, &c.; if so, at what places, and the number of slaves thus employed.

To judge from the fact that by the end of 1861 that Burnett accepted a commission in the Confederate army and was expelled from the U.S. Congress, it is not surprising that House Republicans objected repeatedly to the Kentuckian being allowed to address the House on his resolution. Burnett apparently saw among his roles at the special session defending the property of rebel slaveholders, especially as Congress was then considering a bill to legalize and formalize confiscating property being used in support of the rebellion. Yet Burnett’s interactions with his fellow members of the U.S. House on his proposed resolution also produces intriguing statements about the status of African Americans in both the Union and Confederate forces, and the developing debate about whether to recruit black men formally for armed military service in the Union army.

The following are the relevant excerpts from these discussions. For example, John McClernand of Illinois, stated after the second time Henry Burnett tried to introduce his resolution. “Will the gentleman [Burnett] allow me to amend the resolution so as to inquire whether the so-called “confederate States” have armed negroes on their side?

Charles A. Wycliffe, upset that his resolution on Indians had been hijacked to investigate blacks in the army, as a Unionist also did not like Burnett was piggy backing on it uninvited to defend the property rights of rebels. He stated:

I wish to state, sir, that I did not offer a resolution to inquire whether slaves had been employed in the southern army. I did not believe, or hear, or understand that such a military arm had been employed by these secessionists. I was unwilling to believe that such was the fact; but it was suggested by some gentlemen over the way that it was the fact, and he wanted me to accept an amendment making that inquiry. I did not accept that. He moved it as an amendment, and the House adopted it. I had no objection to the inquiry. I denounce the employment of slaves and Indians by either of the belligerent party parties. I, who have lived long enough to know something of Indian warfare, cannot tolerate the idea that in a civilized and Christian age any portion of the United States–the confederates or the United States themselves–should employ, without the condemnation of the Christian world, savages and negroes as instruments of war between white men.

Burnett was quick to try to placate his fellow Kentuckian, stating:

I am like my colleague [Wycliffe], opposed to the employment of either negroes or Indians in this war. If we are to have a war, I want it to conducted on the principles of civilization. Let it, at least, be civilized warfare. I have seen negroes in the Federal Army with the uniform on, and armed with all the implements that soldiers are armed with. I am opposed to it. I believe it to be wrong; and hence I offered my resolution.

This statement led to an exchange between Burnett, and three House Republicans: John McClernand, Samuel Curtis of Iowa, and Owen Lovejoy of Illinois. Lovejoy, of course, was the author of the July 9 resolution absolving Union forces of responsibility for hunting fugitive slaves and one of the most prominent abolitionists in Congress. The Congressional Globe recorded the conversation as follows:

Mr. CURTIS. I ask the gentleman from Kentucky whether he saw any negroes enrolled in squad form, or company form, or in any other capacity than as servants?

Mr. BURNETT. The best fighting man I ever saw was a man who went into the valley of Mexico and fought on his own hook; and he was armed by the Federal Government exactly as these negroes are.

Mr. MCCLERNAND. Has the gentleman seen any negroes in squads or companies?

Mr. BURNETT. I have not.

Mr. CURTIS. I ask the gentleman if he believes they are enrolled in any other capacity than that of servants?

Mr. BURNETT. I know not how they are enrolled. The question is, whether they are not armed like soldiers? They have no business with arms.

Mr. CURTIS. I ask the gentleman another question: whether negroes did not go with our officers to the Mexican War, and carry arms there as they do now?

Mr. BURNETT. I do not know whether they did or not.

Mr. CURTIS. I know they did.

Mr. LOVEJOY. I wish to ask the gentleman if he is not aware, as a historical fact, that negroes aided General Jackson in achieving victory of New Orleans?

Mr. BURNETT. I am aware of that; and I understand that the gentleman does not object to the use of negroes in war.

Mr. LOVEJOY. Not at all; I would fight with any muscle that can fight.

Mr. BURNETT. Therefore the gentleman might have saved himself the trouble of asking me any question, because I do not agree with him in his peculiar idea. That is enough.

So while this U.S. House debate in late July 1861 does not substantiate that there were black soldiers in either the Union or Confederate forces at that early moment of the Civil War, it is apparent from the debate above that some servants and other African Americans attached to both armies were armed. This did not make them soldiers officially, but it does make murkier the line dividing soldiers and civilians attached to the armies in the Civil War.

Source: Congressional Globe, 22 July 1861, 224; 23 July 1861, 231.

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Congressional Ambivalence – July 1861

With the passage of July 9 resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives absolving the Union army of capturing fugitive slaves and the introduction of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion Bill in the U.S. Senate on July 16, the opponents of slavery in Congress were on the offensive. Yet while Congress took tentative steps toward emancipation in July 1861, and would take a major step the next month with the passage of the First Confiscation Act, ambivalence toward a war to free the slaves was still on display that summer in both houses of Congress.

A good example of this equivocation came toward the end of July, in the wake of the First Battle of Bull Run, when on July 25, 1861, Congress passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution. Indeed, the resolution was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by John J. Crittenden. He generally is best known to history for his eleventh-hour attempt in late 1860 to engineer a sectional compromise to forestall secession, the main provision of which was to resurrect the old Missouri Compromise line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes northern latitude and apply it in the western territories and any future territory acquired by the United States. The compromise, which in essence was a series of constitutional amendments, failed to pass Congress, and although there was some attempt to revive a similar compromise during the Washington Peace Conference of February 1861, the effort clearly failed to stem secession in the Lower South. Crittenden returned to his home state of Kentucky at the end of his Senate term in March 1861, where he was much more successful in preventing it from joining the Confederacy.

Crittenden reluctantly accepted election to the U.S. House in 1861 because being over seventy (he was born in 1787), he wanted to retire from public life. But having accepted his House seat, he threw himself into the business of the special session, especially shoring up in the Unionist position in the border states, which he saw as connected with keeping emancipation from becoming a Union war aim. Crittenden had voted against the July 9 resolution and on the day following the Union debacle at Bull Run/Manassas, he introduced a resolution to put Congress on record as supporting only a war for Union, not for the end of slavery. The resolution read:

That the present deplorable civil war has been forced on the country by the disunionists of the southern States, now in arms against the Constitutional government, and in arms around the the capital; that in this national emergency, Congress, banishing all feelings of mere passion or resentment, will recollect only its duty to the whole country; that this war is not waged on their part in any spirit of oppression, or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired; and that as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.

While not explicitly mentioning slavery, it is unquestionably what John J. Crittenden meant by “the rights or established institutions of those States.” Obviously, Crittenden hoped the rebellion in the South could be put down without destroying the peculiar institution there or in the loyal slave states. Enough of his colleagues apparently agreed with the Kentuckian for the resolution to pass the House on July 22 and the Senate on July 25, 1861 (where it was introduced by future president Andrew Johnson).

Interestingly, since the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution passed the House by a vote of 121 to 2, it is obvious that many members voted in favor of it and the July 9 resolution absolving the army of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act (which had passed 99 to 53). Obviously, they either did not see the resolutions’ contradictions, ignored them, or like many Americans before the Civil War favored non-interference with slavery but were loath to force anyone to take part in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. A further year of war, which would make the horrible losses at Bull Run/Manassas on July 21, 1861, seem small by comparison, would do much to end this ambivalence and harden the feelings of more white Northerners against slavery. But in Summer 1861 they clung on to their ambivalence concerning the peculiar institution.

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The Slaveholders’ Rebellion Bill

The July 8 edition of Civil War Emancipation discussed the lead taken by Congress in Summer 1861 in nudging the United States in the direction of emancipation, at the same time Lincoln was attempting to placate Unionist slaveholders in the border states. It explored a resolution passed by the U.S. House Representatives on July 9, 1861, stating “That in the judgment of this House it is no part of the duty of the soldiers of the United States to capture and return fugitive slaves.” The resolution was the brainchild of abolitionist Congressman Owen Lovejoy of Illinois.

Opponents of slavery in the U.S. Senate also acted that month. Most especially, Samuel C. Pomeroy, who had recently joined the Senate from the newly admitted state of Kansas. A veteran of the freesoil forces in Bleeding Kansas during the late 1850s, Pomeroy had an abiding hatred for slavery and slaveholders. On July 16, 1861, he introduced a bill that quickly became referred to “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion bill.” The proposed legislation anticipated the Second Confiscation Act that would be passed by Congress a year later in July 1862. According to the bill:

That, from and after the passage of this act, there shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in any of the States of this Union that claim to have seceded from the government, and are in open and armed resistance to the execution of the laws and the provisions of the Constitution of the United States.

Pomeroy’s bill clearly identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. In the preamble, it stated:

. . . is it essential to its self-preservation that, in “providing for the general welfare,” the united government should crush from the soil of the Union every germ of despotism that threatens its liberty; and whereas in this republic has culminated in a formidable rebellion, which threatens the liberties of the whole; and whereas the rise of the slave power within its limits proves how utterly incompatible with republican institutions is every form of despotism; and whereas the great question before this nation, which it is called upon to settle now–and settle forever–once for all, and for which the loyal people and States of this country are pouring out their blood and lavishing their treasure, is, whether American slavery shall die or American freedom shall live.

Samuel Pomeroy’s bill also provided for recruiting black soldiers to fight for the Union. Both he and his colleague, Senator James H. Lane, were much in favor of African-American military service. Lane would form the first official black unit in the Union army, the First Kansas (Colored) Infantry Regiment, during Summer 1862. But a year earlier, the idea of permanently freeing slaves and recruiting black soldiers was considered too radical. Too many Americans still agreed with Senator John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, “The bill is a congressional act of emancipation intended to arm the slaves. It is not only to confiscate the whole property, but it is to ferment a servile war.” So, Pomeroy’s bill did not become law but pointed the way to future. Of it, the New York Times‘ correspondent wrote prophetically:

At present there is not a majority in the Senate that will favor such a bill, but I question whether a majority will be wanting twelve months longer, if the war continues. We must yet learn, that the only effective remedy for this rebellion, is to remove the cause. Gen. POMEROY will tell how he would do that when he gets the floor. His colleague, Gen. LANE, will sustain the same view. These Kansas Senators have had an education more severe than the catechism of the Priest, and they are bearing early fruit in consequence of that education.

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Limits of the Contraband Policy

The July 10 edition of Civil War Emancipation featured a letter from Maryland Congressman Charles Calvert to Abraham Lincoln complaining about the state’s slaves fleeing their owners and finding refuge in Union army camps, even accompanying the troops across the Potomac River into Virginia. It is not certain when Calvert’s letter, dated July 10, 1861, reached Lincoln or when he read it, but his reaction was swift and understandably so. The President simply could not lose Maryland to the Confederacy, as Washington, D.C., effectively would become an island in enemy territory, and its position as the federal capital untenable.

Abraham Lincoln had acted forcefully in late April against Maryland’s secessionists, suspending habeas corpus in the state which allowed federal authorities to arrest persons suspected of disloyalty and imprison them indefinitely without trial. With Unionists like Charles Calvert, however, Lincoln had to adopt a more conciliatory policy. The President evidently decided to do what Calvert asked, but quietly and without fanfare (presumably not to excite either abolitionists in his own party or slaveholders). Rather than publicly announce his actions, he sent a quiet note to Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott then discretely communicated with Gen. Irvin McDowell, Union commander in Virginia, in a letter written by Scott’s military secretary, Lt. Col. Schuyler Hamilton, dated July 16, 1861. The letter, labeled “Confidential,” read:

SIR: The general-in-chief desires me to communicate to you that he has received from the President of the United States a second note dated to-day on the subject of fugitive slaves in which he asks: “Would it not be well to allow owners to bring back those which have crossed” the Potomac with our troops? The general earnestly invites your attention to this subject knowing that you with himself enter fully into His Excellency’s desire to carry out to the fullest all constitutional obligations. Of course it is the general’s wish the name of the President should not at this time be brought before the public in connection with this delicate subject.

Likewise, the Adjutant General’s Office sent a short note to Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield, commander of federal forces in Washington, D.C. It stated, “SIR: The general-in-chief directs that you take stringent measures to prevent any fugitive slaves from passing over the river particularly as servants with the regiments ordered over.” Mansfield quickly issued General Order No. 33, dated July 17, 1861. The order stated:

Fugitive slaves will under no pretext whatever be permitted to reside or be in any way harbored in the quarters and camps of the troops serving in this department. Neither will such slaves be allowed to accompany troops on the march. Commanders of troops will be held responsible for a strict observance of this order.

What response McDowell made is not entirely clear. He was probably too busy with the preparations for the Battle of Bull Run, which was mere days away (it occurred on July 21). Likewise, the note from Scott’s military secretary did not demand any definite action. Merely that McDowell allow loyal slaveholders to reclaim fugitive slaves taking refuge with his army. Yet clearly there were officers in McDowell’s army who still saw giving any slaves refuge as improper, even if presumably their owners were disloyal. On July 14, 1861, Col. Thomas A. Davies, commanding the 2nd Brigade, 5th Division of McDowell’s army sent a note to his superior, Col. D. S. Miles, commanding the 5th Division of the Army of Northeastern Virginia. It read:

SIR: In pursuance of your verbal order of yesterday I made a reconnaissance on the Fairfax road seven miles out and on the Richmond road about ten miles and on the Mount Vernon road as far as Mount Vernon. … The negroes harnessed up one four-mule team to a wagon and one two-mule team to a wagon and got in to the number of ten of their own accord and drove to my camp. … As to the negroes there being no law or orders directing me either to cause them to remain at home or to prevent them from volunteering to do team duty in my brigade I shall allow them to remain until otherwise directed. I, however, have placed a guard over the provisions, the mules and the wagons on the estate and shall await your orders for their disposition. Miles response to Davies was swift and simple. It stated, “Colonel Davies has been instructed to immediately withdraw his pickets to within a proper distance in front of his brigade, to respect private property and to send back to the farm the negroes his troops brought away.

Clearly, D. S. Davies did not see the slaves in question as “contraband of war” to be denied to the enemy, but as private property to be respected even if the owners might be secessionists. So in mid-July 1861, the contraband policy’s effectiveness in undermining slavery was limited by the Lincoln administration’s determination it only apply to disloyal owners and certain Union officers who declined to enforce it all. But the slaves and their de facto allies in positions of authority would continue to test those limits.


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Slaves as Confederate Cannon Fodder?

Desperate to escape bondage, slaves fled to Union forces any way they could when presented with the opportunity. The federal army, of course, became the main sanctuary for slaves during the Civil War. However, when given a chance to flee to the Union navy, slaves took it. The opportunities were few at the beginning of the war, but increased as the Union blockade of southern ports tightened and federal navy increased its activity along inland water ways

An early example of slaves fleeing to the Union navy occurred in July 1861 with the USS Mount Vernon. This ship was a wooden-screw steamer converted from civilian use for service in the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Squadron. In mid-July it was positioned at the mouth of Virginia’s Rappahannock River on blockade duty. On July 15, 1861, Oliver S. Glisson, the Mount Vernon’s captain dispatched a letter to the commander of the North Atlantic Squadron. In part, it read:

I have to report, that this morning at daylight we observed a boat adrift near Stingaree [actually “Stingray”] Light House and soon after discovered a man in the Light house. We manned a boat, armed her, and sent her with an officer to pick up the boat, and to ascertain who was in the Light House.

At 8h30m the boat returned bringing with her six Negroes who had deserted from the shore during the night and taken shelter in the Light House casting their boat adrift to avoid detection.

I have rationed these Negroes onboard of this Vessel, until I receive orders from you as to their disposal.

However, the most interesting passage in the letter, in regard to escaped slaves, reads as follows:

They appear to be much frightened and state that the people on shore are about arming the Negroes with the intention of placing them in the front of Battle. their taking this course has caused much excitement amongst the Negro population, who are deserting in every direction  two other boats made their escape last night in the hope of being picked up by some Vessel passing in the Bay.

What are we to make of this passage? Were white Southerners in this part of Virginia really intent on using their slaves as cannon fodder in battle? Were they telling them these stories as a means of intimidation? Or was this a story contrived by the slaves to elicit sympathy from Captain Glisson and increase their chances of being given sanctuary aboard the Mount Vernon? Or was there perhaps something else going on here? I invite the readers of Civil War Emancipation to share their opinions.

Source: Source: Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. Series I, Volume I: The Destruction of Slavery. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 75.

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