End of the Fugitive Slave Law

June 28

Source: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/images/s33a.1.jpg

Tomorrow, June 28, 2014, besides being the centennial of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, which precipitated World War I, is the sesquicentennial of an altogether happier event, the end of the Fugitive Slave Act, perhaps the vilest, most horrific law ever to be placed on the books in the United States.

The Fugitive Slave Act had been the linchpin of the Compromise of 1850, promising to make it easier for southern slaveholders to reclaim slaves that escaped into the free northern states. It was a revision of the earlier fugitive slave law pass by Congress in 1793, which white Southerners had found ineffective for that purpose. In the decades that followed this law many state legislatures in the North had passed “personal liberty laws”: statutes that sought to make it difficult for slave catchers to operate on northern soil. While the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania (1844), ruled unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law, they also indicated that state authorities had no obligation to assist persons in northern states trying to reclaim slave property.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 aimed to address this deficiency, in part, not only by requiring state authorities to assist slave catchers, but also obligating private citizens upon a demand by federal authorities to do the same. A fine of $1,000 could be levied upon anyone who refused such assistance, and the same fine plus six months in jail was made the punishment for any person that assisted a fugitive slave in evading capture. Furthermore, any black person could be held as a fugitive slave simply upon the sworn testimony of a claimant, and their status would adjudicated in front of a federal magistrate that would paid twice as much money for hearing the case if they found in favor of the alleged slaveholder instead of the alleged slave (a purposely created conflict of interest to make magistrates favor slaveholders or slaves).

The law caused outrage among African Americans in the North, who justly feared the last mentioned provision made any black person there subject to enslavement on the basis of perjured testimony, even if they were not an escaped slaves. It also caused anger among white Northerners, not only abolitionists, but also other whites that resented being forced into slave catching posses and who feared the law’s passage as evidence of the growing influence of “Slave Power” in the national government. This outrage resulted in a new wave of personal liberty laws being passed in the North, seeking, with considerable success, to frustrate the implementation of this much hated 1850 law.

Despite the difficult in enforcing it, which left many white Southerners feeling cheated out their main supposed gain under the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did result in the return of some escaped slaves, probably in the hundreds, from the North to renewed bondage in the South. It forced slaves that had made it out of the South to continue north to Canada, where they could finally be safe from capture and re-enslavement. The law remained on the books and continued to be utilized well into the Civil War, although its operation was curtailed because only loyal slaveholders could now make claims against the law, and law enforcement authorities and the the Union Army, often proved increasingly unable or unwilling to assist in returning slaves to bondage as the war wore on.

Nonetheless, when Congress repealed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in late June 1864, while the action by this point in the war was mostly symbolic, it was not empty symbolism. Slavery ultimately depended for its survival on government to provide the force to guarantee the power of slaveholders to enforce discipline on their property. In repealing the fugitive slave law, Congress was in essence telling slaveholders they would no longer enjoy the police power of the federal government in this endeavor. In doing so, they essentially removed an important pillar of the legitimacy of the peculiar institution paving the way for the final passage and ratification of the 13th amendment the following year, forever ending slavery in the United States.

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Juneteenth, History and Tradition

Donald R. Shaffer:

Happy Juneteenth! We are one year away from the sesquicentennial of the events that gave rise to this informal but significant day of commemoration. In the meantime enjoy Andy Hall’s take on Juneteenth, from over at his blog, Dead Confederates. And look forward to an original edition of my blog soon!

Originally posted on Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog:

[This post originally appeared here on June 19, 2010.]

“Emancipation” by Thomas Nast. Ohio State University.

Juneteenth has come again, and (quite rightly) the Galveston County Daily News, the paper that first published General Granger’s order that forms the basis for the holiday, has again called for the day to be recognized as a national holiday:

Those who are lobbying for a national holiday are not asking for a paid day off. They are asking for a commemorative day, like Flag Day on June 14 or Patriot Day on Sept. 11. All that would take is a presidential proclamation. Both the U.S. House and Senate have endorsed the idea.
Why is a national celebration for an event that occurred in Galveston and originally affected only those in a single state such a good idea?
Because Juneteenth has become a symbol of the end of…

View original 1,399 more words

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Bottom Rail on Top or Whipping the Slaveholder

Civil War blogdom is busy these days chronicling the start of Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign which would eventually bog down in the trenches in front of Petersburg. A side show related to Grant’s larger campaign was Benjamin Butler’s effort along the James River. Grant sought to overwhelm the Confederates in Spring 1864 by launching as many major thrusts as possible to take advantage of the massive and growing Union advantage in manpower by stretching rebel ranks so thin they would break. Butler’s Army of the James attempted to advance toward Richmond via the peninsula between the York and James River. It was the same area that had been the focus of George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign two years earlier. Grant did not expect Butler, a political general, to succeed where McClellan had failed and take Richmond. But he hoped the Army of the James could capture the Richmond and Petersburg Railway, a critical line of supply to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, or at the very least force Lee to divert troops from his main force facing Grant to save the rail link. It was a futile hope since Butler’s Army quickly got bottled up in the peninsula by 18,000 second-tier Confederate troops

Despite its miserable performance, which eventually cost Butler his command, the Army of James was notable for its extensive use of black Union troops. Indeed, an entire corps of the army, the 25th, was composed exclusively of African-American regiments. One of those regiments was the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry recruited in Washington, D.C., and nearby parts of Virginia. One of the men of this regiment was George W. Hatton, a sergeant and former slave. Hatton became a correspondent of The Christian Record, the voice of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In the May 28, 1864 issue, a revealing letter from Hatton appeared in the Recorder in which there was a significant reversal. He stated:

Mr. Editor: — You are aware that Wilson’s Landing is on the James river, a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed, in the year 1620, if my memory serves me right, and from that day up to the breaking out of the rebellion, was looked upon as an inferior race by all civilized nations. But behold what has been revealed in the past three or four years; why the colored men have ascended upon a platform of equality, and the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master, for this day I am now an eye witness of the fact. The country being principally inhabited by wealthy farmers, there are a great many men in the regiment who are refugees from this place. While out on a foraging expedition we captured Mr. Clayton, a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.P.V’s; on the day before we captured several colored women that belonged to Mr. C., who had given them a most unmerciful whipping previous to their departure. On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of headquarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment, and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him, and introduce him to the ladies I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by. After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race. Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! 

The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy. Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror. 

While no one should rejoice in the physical abuse of a human being, no matter how well justified, still it possible to derive some grim satisfaction from slaves seeing an abusive slaveholder getting his comeuppance. It bespeaks of the bitterness of the war by 1864 that white Union officers would deliver a slaveholder to the mercy of former slaves and that ex-slaves would be prepared to mete out their vengeance. Truly, for a moment in May 1864, near where Africans first stepped foot in Virginia in 1620, the bottom rail was truly a top.

Source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3082t.html

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Remembering the Fort Pillow Massacre



Today is the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Fort Pillow, which set the stage for the most notorious massacre of black Union soldiers by Confederate forces during the Civil War. While what exactly occurred is still disputed, it is reasonably certain that about 1500 cavalry under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, on April 12, 1864, overwhelmed an interracial garrison about about 600 Union troops–recently liberated slaves and white Tennessee Unionists–manning Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River about forty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. The fort had been built by the Confederates early in the war to control traffic on the river, and proved vulnerable to an overland assault it was ill-designed to repel. Nearly half the Union garrison was killed, especially African-American soldiers, many apparently after they stopped resistance and were attempting to surrender. The Confederates clearly were angry about blacks in Union blue whose service they saw as tantamount to servile insurrection. If the intent was to cow African Americans it instead had the opposite effect, hardening the resolve of black Union troops, for whom it showed they could expect no quarter from the rebels and were eager to avenge Fort Pillow.

Yet it is important to remember that some African Americans at Fort Pillow, probably around eighty men in all, survived the massacre. The testimony of about twenty of them is at the core of the hearings on this incident conducted by the U.S. Congress’ Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, which has been digitized and is available online. Although heavily politicized and devoid of cross examination, the congressional investigation is particularly valuable because the testimony started only ten days after the massacre when memories were still fresh. It shows that while the Confederates wantonly massacred many black Union soldiers, others survived for a variety of reasons, most especially because at some point an order apparently was given for the Confederate troops to stop the killing (although some black prisoners evidently still were murdered later).

Likewise, in my own research using Civil War pension files, I have found survivors of Fort Pillow who discussed the assault and its aftermath in their application testimony. Their accounts, although recorded decades later, constitute a valuable supplement to the contemporary congressional testimony because it includes men who spent a long period as prisoners following the assault on Fort Pillow. The soldiers questioned by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War tended to be men that either evaded captivity by escaping the fort during the battle and its aftermath, or quickly escaped Confederate captivity and soon found federal forces. Most of the black Union prisoners that did not escape ended up in Mobile, Alabama, working on bolstering the port’s fortifications.

Most–but not all. One of the most interesting stories to emerge in pension files from a survivor of the Fort Pillow Massacre comes a black veteran known after the war as Allen Walker, but who served in the Union Army as Allen James. Walker (alias James) was interviewed in February 1902 by a “special examiner” or field investigator of the U.S. Pension Bureau, the federal bureaucracy charged with administering the huge pension program for Union veterans and their survivors. Worried that Walker was an impostor impersonating the soldier James, it sent an examiner to question him and other witnesses to determine his true identity.

In the end, the federal investigator confirmed that Allen Walker and the soldier known to the government as Allen James were the same person. While Walker did not have much to say about the battle at Fort Pillow beyond noting that Forrest and his cavalry “ran in on us . . . and killed or captured us nearly all of us,” he was much more illuminating on his fate as a prisoner of the Confederates.  “I was not treated like the other prisoners,” Walker stated. Instead, he became the servant of a Confederate Orderly Sergeant, John Peary, who eventually gave Walker to his brother who took him to the small Peary farm near Gonzales, Texas, where according to Walker, “they made me practically their slave.”[1]  He remained there until July 1865, when Union troops passed nearby and Walker escaped to join them, arriving back at his reconstituted unit now stationed in Memphis in November 1865.

If Walker and the survival of other black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow proves anything it was the belated realization of Forrest and his men that in indulging their anger by slaughtering hundreds of African Americans that the murdered men probably would have been more valuable as laborers. So by killing them, while Forrest’s cavalry might have temporarily satiated their sensibility offended by African Americans in federal uniform, they deprived the Confederacy of their labor as POWs, gave the Union a significant propaganda victory, and steeled the resolve of other black Union troops to go down fighting instead of trying to surrender. So while the Battle of Fort Pillow was a tactical victory for the Confederacy, it proved in the end a strategic victory for the Union and the cause of emancipation in the American Civil War. That is the silver lining of the senseless slaughter that was the Fort Pillow Massacre–the men that died there did not die in vain.

[1] Deposition of Allen Walker, 5 February 1902, Civil War Pension File of Allen James (alias Walker), 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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U.S. Senate Passage of the 13th Amendment


150 years ago today, the U.S. Senate passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an important milestone on the road to slavery’s final end in the United States. Although the story of its later passage in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1865 has become better known to the public as a result of Lincoln (2012), it is important to remember that the amendment would not have been sent to states if it had not earlier passed the Senate. The U.S. Senate has a short article on the 13th Amendment’s passage through that body that is worth reading.

I also was going to post on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s letter of April 4, 1864, to Albert Hodges, where he famously wrote the Kentucky newspaper editor that “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” but Brooks Simpson beat me to the punch, so rather than write on this topic here is a link to Simpson’s blog entry on it over at Crossroads.

I’m working on my post for April 12, which will be the sesquicentennial of the Fort Pillow Massacre. Stay tuned.

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12 Years a Slave – Articles of Interest

Unless you have been out-of-touch since Sunday, you have heard the news that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. If you read my thoughts on the movie when it came out that should come as no surprise. It is probably the best Hollywood movie ever dealing with slavery, essentially because it told Solomon Northup’s story largely straight (unlike Django Unchained‘s silly revenge fantasy the year before).  Lupita Nyong’o won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, although Chiwetal Ejiofor (Lead Actor) and Michael Fassbender (Supporting Actor) didn’t win in their categories. But the film also won for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Not surprisingly, a flurry of articles have appeared on the film since Sunday to feed the public’s renewed interest in 12 Years A Slave since its Oscar triumph. As a public service to the Civil War Emancipation readership, here is annotated list of some of the most worthwhile of them.

Manisha Sinha, “The untold history beneath ’12 Years,” New York Daily News [Sinha discusses how Northup’s case was just one of many kidnappings of northern free blacks into southern slavery before the Civil War.]

Peter Peveto, “Historian Mentioned at Oscars for Work,” The Advocate [Discusses the role of Louisiana historian, Sue Eakin, who back in the 1960s verified the basic veracity of Northup’s account in historical records.

Joseph Stromberg, “How the New York Times covered ’12 Years a Slave’s’ Solomon Northup in 1853,” Salon [Discusses the New York Times coverage of Northup’s case in the wake of his rescue from slavery.]

John Horn, “Oscars: ’12 Years a Slave’ puts spotlight on Hollywood’s approach to race,” Los Angeles Times [Story on the film winning the Best Picture Oscar in the larger context of Hollywood and race.]

If there is a particularly good story released on the film since it won the Best Picture Oscar missing, please let me know so I can add it to this list.

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Braving Alligator Infested Waters to be Free

It is not unusual to encounter dramatic tales of how slaves finally became free. They were a staple of abolitionist slave narratives before the Civil War. To escape slavery was to become a fugitive from the law, facing the full resources of the state devoted to their capture, and often hunted by experienced and ruthless private slave catchers and their vicious bloodhounds. These stories continued during the war, where the opportunities to gain freedom increased, but often so did the danger.

One such harrowing tale of an escape from slavery during the Civil War came in February 1864, in the testimony of a black Louisiana soldier, Octave Johnson, to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. This body was created by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1863, and asked to investigate the condition of slaves freed in the territory subject to the Emancipation Proclamation, and their prospects to support and defend themselves. Johnson had a particularly poignant story, related to the commission 150 years ago this month, involving maroonage and braving alligator infested waters to escape slave catchers’ bloodhounds. His testimony read:

Deposition of Octave Johnson, Corporal Co. C, 15th Regt. Corps d’Afrique.

I was born in New Orleans; I am 23 years of age;  I was raised by Arthur Thiboux of New Orleans;  I am by trade a cooper;  I was treated pretty well at home;  in 1855 master sold my mother, and in 1861 he sold me to S. Contrell of St. James Parish for $2,400;  here I worked by task at my trade;  one morning the bell was rung for us to go to work so early that I could not see, and I lay still, because I was working by task;  for this the overseer was going to have me whipped, and I ran away to the woods, where I remained for a year and a half;  I had to steal my food; took turkeys, chickens and pigs;  before I left our number had increased to thirty, of whom ten were women;  we were four miles in the rear of the plantation house;  sometimes we would rope beef cattle and drag them out to our hiding place;  we obtained matches from our friends on the plantation;  we slept on logs and burned cypress leaves to make a smoke and keep away mosquitoes;  Eugene Jardeau, master of hounds, hunted for us for three months;  often those at work would betray those in the swamp, for fear of being implicated in their escape;  we furnished meat to our fellow-servants in the field, who would return corn meal;  one day twenty hounds came after me;  I called the party to my assistance and we killed eight of the bloodhounds;  then we all jumped into Bayou Faupron; the dogs followed us and the alligators caught six of them; “the alligators preferred dog flesh to personal flesh;”  we escaped and came to Camp Parapet, where I was first employed in the Commissary’s office, then as a servant to Col. Hanks;  then I joined his regiment.

Source: http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/OJohnson.html

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