Dealing With Slavery
Late Captain Twenty-second Ohio Volunteer Infantry
March 2, 1892
Timothy Downey PDC
Department of Kentucky
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
The relation of slavery to the Rebellion is now so clearly recognized that the hesitancy of the National Government to interfere in any manner with that institution seems marvelous; but the fear of alienating loyal citizens of the border states and the desire to avoid political dissension in the North were then potent influences both with Congress and the President, and for a time slavery seemed to be secure whatever might be the result of the conflict.
In his inaugural address, President Lincoln expressly disclaimed any purpose to interfere directly or indirectly with slavery in states where it existed, reiterating with approval the declaration of the platform on which he was elected, "that the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to the balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend." And in July, 1861, a resolution introduced by Senator Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, was adopted in the Senate by an almost unanimous vote, declaring that "the war was not prosecuted for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights and established institutions of the states, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and all laws made in pursuance thereof, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality and rights of the several states unimpaired, and that as soon as those objects were accomplished the war ought to cease."
The logic of events, however, played sad havoc with all such illusions, and at last in spite of political theories and personal prejudices, the children of bondage passed almost dryshod, as it were, through the midst of the Red Sea to the promised land of freedom and political equality.
On March 2, 1861, but two days before the inauguration of President Lincoln, and less than six weeks before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Congress by a joint resolution had submitted to the States for ratification a thirteenth article of the Constitution, providing that no amendment should be made thereto which would authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere within any State with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State. It may be aptly termed the irony of history that the thirteenth article actually adopted five years later abolished the institution in every State.
Nor was there a single utterance of the President hostile to slavery for more than a year after the commencement of the war. When, in the latter part of 1861, General Fremont, in Missouri, issued an order liberating the slaves of persons in arms against the Government, it was promptly revoked by the President, and even as late as May, 1862, when General Hunter, at Hilton Head, in the very hot bed of secession, declared that slavery and martial law were altogether incompatible, and that persons theretofore held as slaves within his command -Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina - were therefore declared free; his order was disapproved and declared altogether void by Executive proclamation.
The new Congress was equally conservative. Not until July, 1862, did it undertake to liberate the slaves of those actually engaged in rebellion - the sole legislation on the subject during 1861 being the fourth section of an act, approved August 6, 1861. In its first section this act provided for the confiscation of property used in aid of insurrection, the fourth section being as follows:
"Sec. 4. That whenever hereafter during the present insurrection against the Government of the United States any person claimed to be held for labor or service under the law of any State shall be required or permitted by the person to whom such labor or service is claimed to be due, or by the lawful agent of such person, to take up arms against the United States, or shall be required or permitted by the person to whom such labor or service is claimed to be due, or his lawful agent, to work or to be employed in or upon any fort, navy-yard, dock, armory, ship, intrenchment, or in any military or naval service whatsoever against the Government and lawful authority of the United States, then and in every such case the person to whom such labor or service is claimed to be due shall forfeit his claim to such labor, any law of the State or of the United States to the contrary notwithstanding."
The passage of this act was strenuously resisted in both Houses, the ostensible ground of opposition being that it might serve to justify interference by executive officers with the relations of master and slave, without opportunity for judicial investigation of the ground of forfeiture. It was, however, passed by a vote of twenty-four to eleven in the Senate and sixty to forty-eight in the House of Representatives.
As it fell to the lot of the writer to deal with the subject of this act, it may prove of interest to record his experience. After the capture of Fort Donelson, in February, 1862, the Twenty-second Ohio Infantry, then the Thirteenth Missouri Infantry, was ordered to Clarksville, Tennessee, a beautiful and thriving town on the Cumberland River, about twenty miles above the fort. Colonel Crafts J. Wright was commander of the post, and I was detailed as provost-marshal. In the evening after this detail I was summoned to my office where I found a man waiting to see me. It was then dusk, and I did not at once discover that he was a colored man, nor did his speech betray the fact. He, however, informed me that he belonged to a prominent citizen residing in the suburbs. He told me that he had been taught to read and write, and enough of arithmetic to enable him to keep his master's accounts, and had also learned the trade of carpentering. He said he had always been treated with the greatest kindness, and had no desire to leave his home, but on that morning his master, learning of our occupation, said he was apprehensive that a fine horse he owned might be taken from him, and directed my informant to take the horse to a farm which he owned some miles out, giving him a letter to the man there in charge, which he said would tell him what to do with the horse. After John had started on the errand, it occurred to him that it might be well to see what the note contained, and on examination he found, as he had suspected might be the case, that he himself was the subject of his master's solicitude, and the instruction was to send him South. He thereupon turned back, and, having returned the horse to his master's stable, came into town to see whether he could thus be sent away.
I was sorely perplexed by such a question, for I knew that any interference in such matters by military officers was strictly prohibited, but I told him he could remain until morning, when I would let him know whether any thing could be done for him. Upon consultation with Colonel Wright, he mentioned this act of Congress, a copy of which he had cut from some newspaper, and suggested the probability that this man had been employed in the construction of the Confederate fort on the river bank just below the town. Upon inquiry, I found such to be the fact, his master having sent him to work as a carpenter in making platforms for the guns, and I then informed him that his late master had no further control over him, and he could remain with us, if he chose to do so, which he did. A few days afterward, his master called, saying he had learned that one of his slaves was at our headquarters, and he had come after him. He said that John was the son of an intimate friend, who on his death bed had committed the boy to his care, and that he consequently felt a deep interest in him and had never treated him as an ordinary slave. He admitted in conversation that the boy had worked at the fort by his permission, and was greatly surprised when I told him that John was now a free man and could do as he pleased about going with him. He appealed to the proclamation of General Grant assuring citizens of protection to their property, as well as their persons, but, finding that ineffectual, asked if he could see the boy, to which I of course assented and called him in. In response to questions, John frankly stated that he made no complaint of ill-treatment, but wanted his freedom, if entitled to it, and would not voluntarily return to bondage.
The master then became very indignant, demanding his slave, and threatening to complain to my superior officers if I did not give him up - but left without receiving any satisfaction. The next day, however, he called again, and said he wanted a receipt so that he could claim compensation for his property. This I declined to give him, but offered to give him a statement of the circumstances, and, after suggesting that he take the oath of allegiance, which he declined to do, I wrote a certificate substantially as follows:
"This is to certify that John _________, colored heretofore held to service and labor by ________, a notorious rebel of this county, who now refuses to take the oath of allegiance, having been employed in the construction of a Confederate fort at this place, is entitled to his freedom under the act of Congress, and I have this day refused to deliver him up to said __________."
Within a few days, numbers of colored men, learning of John's liberation, came to me for free papers, claiming to have also worked on the fort. When satisfied that they had been so employed, I gave them certificates of the facts, and sent them to the post-quartermaster for employment - but in many instances their masters strenuously denied that they had worked on the fort, and in some instances I was seriously in doubt as to the fact. I was, however, relieved from this embarrassment in a remarkable manner.
One day I received a message that if I would go to a designated house at an hour named after dark I could obtain a complete list of the negroes who worked on the fort, and on going to the place a roll or time book, which was clearly genuine, was handed to me in the dark by a white man, who said he wanted to help the boys get their freedom, but enjoined secrecy as to the manlier in which I had obtained it, as it might cost him his life if discovered. As this book contained the names of the slaves and the time each worked, as well as the names of their respective masters, I had no further difficulty in determining who were entitled to their freedom, and certificates thereof were given to between thirty and forty of them.
These proceedings of course created intense excitement among the citizens, and strenuous efforts were made to prevent such high-handed interference with the sacred rights of property. Delegations called upon Colonel Wright, as well as myself, and Hon. Cave Johnson, who had been Postmaster General of the United States, was sent to Nashville to secure the interference of Andrew Johnson, who had just been appointed military governor of the state, but his mission was apparently fruitless, as we heard nothing from it.
A persistent effort was made to induce me to surrender one of the men claimed by a church as its property. He served as sexton, and was also a source of revenue as he worked out during the week. The minister himself came to see me and made an appeal on behalf of religion, which roused my special indignation, and I could not resist the temptation to express my opinion of a church that would claim ownership of men. It is needless to add that the appeal was ineffectual.
The post quartermaster had abundant employment for all these men, in loading upon barges for transportation vast quantities of commissary stores, consisting chiefly of pork, flour and meal, found in the warehouses, as Clarksville had been the chief depot for the supply of General Buckner's army.
As soon as this work was completed, orders were given to evacuate the place. When these orders were received, the disposition of the liberated slaves was a subject of solicitude, on their account as well as our own, and Colonel Wright finally concluded to apply to department headquarters for instructions, he accordingly sent a telegram to General Halleck, at St. Louis, informing him that a number of colored men, who had been employed in the construction of the Confederate fort, and were therefore entitled to their freedom under the act of Congress, were employed by the quartermaster in loading the barges, and asked what should be done with them upon evacuation, in response to which came an order to "remove them to a place of safety."
It was thereupon arranged that the men should remain on the barges with the stores which were to be towed to Paducah. John, however, remained with me as a servant and accompanied us to Pittsburg Landing.
Just as we were leaving Clarksville, a messenger arrived at the boat landing with a communication for me from his late master, inclosing a formal oath of allegiance sworn to before a magistrate, and a letter in which he said that having taken the oath of allegiance as a loyal American citizen he demanded the return of his property. I returned the document with endorsement -" respectfully returned, I have no faith in death-bed repentance "- and shortly afterward we were all steaming down the river.
But he did not give up his "property" without further effort. A few days after our arrival at Pittsburg Landing, John came to me in great alarm, saying he had seen his master in camp. This I could scarcely believe, but that day or the next Colonel Wright received a communication from General Grant, reciting a complaint that a slave belonging to a loyal citizen of Clarksville had been brought away by one of his officers, and was then in his camp, and calling for an immediate report. The report was made, accompanied with a copy of General Halleck's order, which was the last heard of the matter.
John subsequently went to Memphis, where he was employed, when I last heard of him, as porter in a large commission house. I know nothing of the others after their arrival at Paducah, but several of them were quite intelligent, and doubtless profited by their freedom.
I am not advised whether in any other instance this act of Congress was put into practical operation. There were numbers of slaves who secured their freedom in 1861, many of whom were doubtless entitled thereto under the provisions of this law; but they were generally aided without reference to legal rights, and frequently in spite of strict military orders forbidding it. Those to whom I have referred were, however, liberated openly under color of law, and removed under orders from the department commander, and the incident seems, therefore, worthy of mention as an early step in the process of legal emancipation.
As the struggle progressed, it became more and more evident that the fate of slavery was necessarily involved in the fate of the Confederacy. Observation, and the personal experiences of those brought into contact with "the peculiar institution," rapidly disarmed opposition to active interference, and military orders against aiding and harboring fugitive slaves soon became dead letters.
In numerous instances the appeal to humanity proved stronger even than pro-slavery prejudices - Mrs. Stowe's Ohio Senator having many counterparts among the soldiers. One such instance I now recall which also occurred during our occupation of Clarksville. The first lieutenant of my company was especially bitter in his denunciation of abolitionists, who were in his opinion chiefly responsible for the condition of the country. One night, soon after our arrival at that post, he was officer of the guard, and called me up after midnight, saying he wanted to consult me about a matter that had happened at the lines. I accompanied him to the picket line, and there found a young colored girl, with a heavy chain securely fastened to her leg. She said that her master had given her a terrible whipping, and upon her threat to run away had chained her to a log, but, although unable to remove the shackle, she had succeeded in breaking one of the links and had thus got away, carrying the chain with her. A white woman, who accompanied her to our lines, had given her shelter, and endeavored to remove the shackle, but the effort had bruised her leg, which was then badly swollen. She was afraid to continue the effort or to keep her any longer, and had brought her to our camp for aid. The men on picket were greatly exercised, and the lieutenant himself was at a loss how to deal with such a case, declaring that until then he had never believed the stories of such brutality - but the orders strictly forbade receiving or harboring fugitive slaves, and here was a clear case for their application. As I could suggest no solution of the difficulty, I was obliged to leave the officer to reconcile his duty and his conscience as best he could.
Some one had secured a file, and when I left them the men were working by turns endeavoring to cut through the shackle, which they found no easy job. This operation was not within the literal prohibition of the order, and some one jokingly remarked that he would really like to know what General Halleck would himself do under the circumstances.
I learned next morning that it required several hours to get time shackle off, but my lieutenant was very reticent as to what became of the woman after it had been accomplished. I subsequently learned that she had been provided with an outfit of male clothing before the orders were enforced by refusing her admission within the lines, and, as several articles of' such clothing were missing from our tent, I strongly suspected that my lieutenant's prejudice against abolitionists did not stand the test of so practical a trial.
Such occurrences undoubtedly hastened the inevitable result, and when, in September, 1862, the President issued his first proclamation warning those in rebellion of a change of policy if they did not immediately lay down their arms, it was generally received with hearty approval, and even those who had strenuously opposed such measures at the outset yielded their assent.
I have in mind a distinguished officer - Southern born, but loyal to the core - who thus expressed his hearty approval, and, when reminded of violent utterances to the contrary a year before, replied that he had learned a great deal since then.
Thus the war proved a great and rapid educator, and within two years the assurance of a Free Republic was linked with the hope of a restored Union, both of which the result happily confirmed.
Sketches of War History, 1861-1865. Papers read before the Ohio Commandry of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. 1890-1896. Edited by W.H. Chamberlin, late Major U.S.V., Recorder. Published by the Commandery. Volume IV. Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Company. 1896.