In the spirit of the last post on “Emancipation at 150,” today I would like to share some excerpts from my research over the past several years. It was common in the War, as early Union movements advanced into Virginia and slave territory, for Union officers to hire former slaves for a variety of tasks around camp and in conjunction with the ongoing practical needs of a large war effort.

Excerpt 1 – From the anthology of essays last week at the Lincoln Cottage is this excerpt from “The Great Event of the Nineteenth Century: Emancipation During the Civil War” by Manisha Sinha – a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst … writing:

In fact, if slaves fleeing for freedom had not seized the initiative, the process of emancipation would not have unfolded precisely in the manner that it did eventually. In the beginning, the War Department adopted the makeshift policy first employed by General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts in Fort Monroe, Virginia. Butler declared escaped slave “contraband of war” or enemy property that could be legitimately confiscated. The contraband policy, still recognizing slaves as property in principle, led to the liberation of those slaves who managed to make their way to Union army lines. While a few Union officers had earlier returned escaped slaves to the tender mercies of their Confederate masters, now most of them refused to do so. For many northern soldiers, encounters with contraband slaves were their first introduction to the horrors of Southern slavery. Slaves who had braved enemy fire and their masters’ wrath converted many a Midwestern farm boy to abolitionism. Their scarred backs bearing the telltale marks of whippings bore silent witness to the harrowing stories told by fugitive slaves and abolitionists before the war.

Fugitive slaves in VA 1862

Fugitive slaves in VA 1862

Excerpt 2 – My guy Abner Doubleday was among those officers (being an abolitionist) who would not send escaped slaves back. In a letter to the commander of the 76th NY – written in answer to a question on this very issue – Doubleday’s opinion is quite evident:


Washington, April 6, 1862.

Lient. Col. JOHN D. SHAUL,

Commanding Seventy-sixth Regiment New York Volunteers.

SIR: I am directed by General Doubleday to say in answer to your letter of the 2d instant that all negroes coming into the lines of any of the camps or forts under his command are to be treated as persons and not as chattels.

Under no circumstances has the commander of a fort or camp the power of surrendering persons claimed as fugitive slaves as it cannot be done without determining their character.

The additional article of war recently passed by Congress positively prohibits this.

The question has been asked whether it would not be better to exclude negroes altogether from the lines. The general is of the opinion that they bring much valuable information which cannot be obtained from any other source. They are acquainted with all the roads, paths, fords and other natural features of the country and they make excellent guides. They also know and frequently have exposed the haunts of secession spies and traitors and the existence of rebel organizations. They will not therefore be excluded.

The general also directs me to say that civil process cannot be served directly in the camps or forts of his command without full authority being obtained from the commanding officer for that purpose.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

E.P. HALSTED, Acting Assistant Adjutant General

Excerpt 3 – Often in this blog I have included clips from the history of the 76th NY, written by A.P. Smith.  The following is a letter from the war front that was published back home in Cortland, NY in February of 1862:

Talking about slavery reminds me that I have a “contraband.” Yesterday a fine looking negro boy about 19 years old came to my tent to hire out. After learning his history I struck a bargain with him. He escaped about five months since from his master who is a captain in the rebel service. He says his “massa” is the owner of over 140 slaves and lives near Bull Run. He is anxious to meet “massa” on even terms on the battlefield, and I have promised him that if He is faithful, I will retain for him the best Enfield rifle, for that special purpose.

I intend to be around when that contest of races takes place; and yet I am not sure I speak correctly when I say contest of races for Alfred is about half white and undoubtedly not a very distant relative of “massa”. But with your permission I will retain the expression “contest of races;” for if the Southerners fight upon the principle lately acted upon it will be a contest of races in which “massa” will take the lead and Alfred will follow close after with his Enfield. Alfred says there are black companies in the South which are compelled to fight for the South; but their sympathies are all with the North as they have heard that this war is to set them free. How the bondman’s heart must throb at that thought!

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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