Sunday, September 2, 2012

Slaves in the Union Camps

In this time before the Emancipation Proclamation, runaway slaves frequently sought protection in the camps of the Union Army.  As the Federal troops advanced through the South, the soldiers also encountered slaves working the farms and plantations of their owners.  The treatment of these slaves, sometimes referred to as "Contraband",  varied greatly among the Union Generals, there being no uniform policy issued from Washington. Only one thing was clear, Negroes were not to be armed.

To this point, consider General David Hunter's short-lived First South Carolina Volunteers, which was ordered disbanded by the Secretary of War.  Hunter's idea of Colored Troops was slightly ahead of the political wind in Washington, as recorded in this note to Stanton.


Hilton Head, Port Royal, S. C., August 10, 1862.
Honorable EDWIN M. STANTON,Secretary of War, Washington, D. C.:

I am happy to be able to report to you that notwithstanding the head of the weather the health of the troops under my command continues as good as usual. Failing to receive authority to muster the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers into the service of the United States, I have disbanded them. I had hoped that not only would this regiment have been accepted, but that many similar ones would have been authorized to fill up the decimated ranks of the army and afford the aid of which the cause seems now so much in need; but having failed to receive the authority which I expected I have deemed it best to discontinue the organization.
I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your most obedient servant, 

Major-General, Commanding

Although not provided weapons,  runaway slaves were sometimes granted pardons (freedom) by Union officers when they provided valuable information and would likely suffer grave consequences upon their return.


HEADQUARTERS, Huntsville, August 6, 1862.
General WILLIAM S. SMITH, Tullahoma:

General Mitchel reports that slaves here to whom he promised protection for valuable information have been returned to their masters. Do you know of any slaves to whom protection was promised; if so, was the protection claimed by the slaves or any persons in their behalf; and, if so claimed, was it refused? Answer these questions specifically.

Chief of Staff.

However, Smith's reply indicates there was no formal process or accounting of such pardons.

TULLAHOMA, August 6, 1862.
Colonel J. B. FRY:

There was one slave for whom protection was claimed, I think, by Captain Slocum, quartermaster, and another who brought information and was put on duty, I believe, as a train hand. Neither of them were given up to my knowledge. These were all the cases that came to my knowledge. My instructions from General Buell strictly forbade my giving up slaves who had brought in intelligence and thus rendered themselves liable to punishment from their masters, and in no case, to my knowledge, were they so given up.


Recalling an earlier post, Military Governor Andrew Johnson of Tennessee suggested that slaves be put to work repairing railroads and bridges to free soldiers for more traditional military duties.  In other words they were to be freed from slavery but pressed into labor camps.  Buell did somewhat agree with this philosophy and allowed commanders to remove slaves for that purpose. Ever respectful of Southern property rights, the owners were to be provided a detailed receipt,  as if a horse or mule had been taken.  The implementation of this policy is reflected in the following communications.


August 8, 1862.
Brigadier General T. J. WOOD,Commanding Sixth Division:

You are directed by Major-General Thomas to detail from your command suitable parties for the impressment of negroes to be found in the vicinity of Decherd, for the purpose of working upon the fortifications in and about this place. In impressing care should be taken to equalize the number in all instances, leaving a sufficient number to do the ordinary business of the farm house.
Give instructions that each negro bring his blanket and every squad of six his cooking utensils. Take the name of each negro, giving a proper receipt to the owner for the same, so that they can be returned to them as soon as the works is completed.Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Assistant Adjutant-General, Chief of Staff.


HEADQUARTERS, Huntsville, August 8, 1862.
Colonel HARKER, Stevenson:

In taking slaves to work on the intrenchments try, if possible, to leave enough with the owner to do the ordinary and indispensable work about an establishment. Send Mr. Harris' boy (Larkin) back to him for that purpose.



Huntsville, August 10, 1862.
Colonel HARKER,Stevenson:

Send back Mrs. Cole's slaves, Zack and John, who are employed on public work, to take care of the place, there being no hands left for the purpose.


Also of note on this day in 1862, General Kirby Smith (CSA) marches into Lexington, Kentucky, the familial home of Mary Todd Lincoln, to the cheers of many citizens.

Editor's Note:  This brief review of Federal policy toward the slaves is intended to present a factually-based picture of life before the Emancipation as well as lay groundwork for an incident that greatly affected the Seventeenth Kentucky Infantry in the fall of 1862.  This regiment was fiercely anti-secessionist.  Being from a slave state, however, their views on this topic may be surprising to some readers.  For example, there is evidence that some of it's officers were accompanied in the field by their own slaves, * an image that is difficult to reconcile for those who believe the Union Army's mission was the abolition of the South's peculiar institution..

*  Blackburn, John, A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972, Self-published LOC 72-93774,

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