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THE SURRENDER OF FUGITIVE SLAVES BY ARMY OFFICERS.
Repressive character of slavery. — Universal desire to be free.
Escape of slaves to the Union camps. - General Butler. Contraband of war. - Different policies of different commanders. - Prejudice of soldiers against the negro. Trying position of the President. - Lovejoy's resolution at extra session. Regular session. Resolutions in both houses. Sumner's resolution. Cowan's speech. - Mr. Wilson's bill, and action thereon. — Saulsbury's amendment. Collamer, Wilson, Pearce. - Action in the House. - Bill reported by Blair. — Mallory, Wickliffe, Grider. - Change of policy inevitable. Speech of Bingham. - House bill in the Senate. Saulsbury's amendment. Davis, Anthony. - Bill making new rule of war passed. Resolution offered by Mr. Wilson. - Debated. — Grimes, Sumner, Saulsbury.
SLAVERY was never without a witness of its restrictive and repressive character. Sometimes, indeed, it had done its work so effectually, and had so thoroughly emasculated the bondman of his manhood, that there appeared the solecism of a contented slave. Either stupefied by its potent poison, or wearing a chain gilded by personal favoritism, he felt not its galling. But such cases were exceptional. Generally the iron of slavery had so entered his soul, that he never failed to feel the unpardonable indignity and wrong inflicted. As with compressed air, and the accumulated waters of a reservoir, there were never wanting tokens of this internal struggle to be free, indications that its victims felt their restraint, revolted against the unrighteous tyranny, and were always ready, if not on the lookout, for some means and way of escape. Not only were there always occurring individual attempts in that direction, but the underground railroad was an organized protest against the government that protected such a system, against laws. that so hampered human beings, reduced them to such straits, and made such sacrifices and risks needful for even the chance of regaining their freedom.
When, then, the civil war was raging, which had been inaugurated by the slavemasters for the destruction of the gov ernment and the subversion of the very Constitution on which they had hitherto relied for both authority and aid to recover the fleeing fugitive, slaves were not slow to perceive the logic of events, and to hope that in the mêlée they might effect their longed-for escape. From the outset there were such escapes, and the fugitives sought refuge within the Union lines, and the question was at once propounded to the government and its ministers, "Shall they, or shall they not, be returned to their masters?" The traditions of the past, the admitted provisions of the Constitution, even the proclaimed policy of the Republican party, pointed to an affirmative reply, while attending circumstances and other considerations pointed more decidedly in the opposite direction, and led finally to the adop tion of a different and more worthy policy.
Among the first, perhaps the first, demonstrations of the kind, involving the question, the answer, and the argument somewhat curtly expressed on which that answer was based, was that at Fortress Monroe, in connection with the de mand, already referred to, made on General Butler near the outset of the war. Three slaves presented themselves at the general's camp, and informed him that their master, Colonel Mallory, had gone to the Rebel army, and was about to send them to North Carolina to help in building fortifications. General Butler, in need of laborers, set them at work. He was soon waited upon by an agent of their owner, who de manded that they be given up. The general refused. “Do you mean to set aside your constitutional obligations?" inquired the agent. "Virginia passed an ordinance of secession, and claims to be a foreign country," replied Butler. "I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country." "You say we cannot secede," replied the agent," and so you cannot consistently detain them." "You contend you have seceded, and you cannot consistently claim them," responded one who seldom lacked shrewdness to make fitting reply, or courage to express it. "You are using negroes on your bat teries. I shall detain them as contraband of war." This
epigrammatic reply was seized upon by the public generally, however lawyers may have viewed it, as a practical solution of the vexed problem that had so long puzzled the wisest, who found it difficult to fulfil at once obligations imposed by the Constitution and those by the higher law of humanity. It also furnished for a time a name for those who were thus made free by the stern exigencies of war, though it was afterward supplanted by the more appropriate designation of freed
Similar examples were occurring all along the line of the Union forces, and slaves thus sought refuge within the Federal camps, as they stretched their length from the eastern shores of Virginia to the western borders of Missouri. In the absence of any clearly defined policy on the part of the general government, the different commanders gave answers very much according to their previous prejudices, opinions, social forces, or the pressure of circumstances, brought to bear upon them in their respective localities. In Missouri General Halleck forbade their entrance, and issued an order that they should not be permitted to "enter the lines of any camp or any forces on the march." A similar order was issued by General Williams at Baton Rouge. Generally, however, the Union commanders adopted a more worthy and humane policy, like that of Hunter in South Carolina, Curtis in Arkansas, and Fremont in Missouri, and the fugitives were welcomed and protected; though such a policy was far from being universally acceptable either in the army or at the North. Of the sentiments which too generally obtained, the action of the non-commissioned officers and privates of a company in a Kansas regiment, and of a public meeting in Chicago in the summer of 1862, afford examples. In August of that year the general commanding in Tennessee received a letter from Company G of First Regiment Kansas Volunteers, signed by thirty-six of its members, in which they request the transfer of a colored man from their company for the cause they thus succinctly state: "Our reasons are, firstly, we believe him to be a nigger'; secondly, that he was never properly assigned to our company, but, after being refused in several
other companies, he was placed in Company G. We have no objection to giving our services to our country, to endure all the privations we may be called upon to endure, but to have one of the company, or even one of the regiment, pointed out as a 'nigger,' while on dress-parade or guard, is more than we like to be called upon to bear." In the indorsement of Colonel Deitzler, their regimental commander, occurs the following dainty expression of feeling and opinion: "He is full two thirds nigger,' too black to serve upon terms of equality with white soldiers. I respectfully recommend that he be mustered out of service, or transferred to Jim Lane's nigger brigade. The recommendation is not made out of disrespect for the nigger." About the same time there was a public meeting of the workmen of the leading slaughter and packing houses of Chicago, at which, after giving expression to the alleged intentions of some "to bring negro labor into competition with white men," they resolved, "That we, the packing-house men of the town of South Chicago, pledge ourselves not to work for any packer, under any consideration, who will, in any manner, bring negro labor into competition with our labor."
These conflicting views of his generals, the fact that he felt obliged to countermand the proclamations of Hunter and Fremont, to modify the report of his Secretary of War, with all that these seemingly cross purposes implied and involved, and the equivocal position in which it placed the Republican administration before the eyes of both friends and foes, were exceedingly distasteful and trying to the President. In an interview with delegates from the border slave States at about the same time he thus gave expression to his sense of the difficulties and embarrassments of the situation: "I am pressed with a difficulty not mentioned, with one which threatens division among those who, united, are none too strong. An instance of it is known to you. General Hunter is an honest man. He was, and I hope is still, my friend. I valued him none the less for his agreeing with me in the general wish that all men everywhere could be freed. He proclaimed all men free within certain States, and I repudiated the proclamation. He expected more good and less
harm from the measure than I could believe would follow. Yet, in repudiating it, I gave dissatisfaction, if not offence, to many whose support the country cannot afford to lose. And this is not the end of it. The pressure in this direction is still upon me and is increasing."
From the first there were members of Congress who felt that this was a subject on which the legislative branch of the government should speak, and that the responsibility rested upon that body to define the policy to be pursued. Even at the extra session Mr. Lovejoy introduced into the House a resolution, in which it was affirmed 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." But even a proposition so manifestly correct and proper was at that time beyond its reach, and a Republican Congress summarily laid it on the table by a vote of sixty-six to eighty-one, so faintly did its members comprehend the situation and the real significance of the conflict to which they had been summoned; and, although their attention had been called thereto, they separated without taking any action upon this really vital question of the war.
Immediately on the assembling of Congress at its regular session in December, Mr. Wilson gave notice in the Senate of his intention to introduce a bill to punish officers and privates of the army for arresting, detaining, or delivering up persons claimed as fugitive slaves. On the same day Mr. Lovejoy introduced into the House a bill for the same purpose, and in almost identically the same language. Neither of the bills, however, embodied the final action reached, and they are noteworthy now mainly because they indicate the anxious desire that so promptly introduced the subject in both houses on the third day of their assembling, indicating the drift of thought and purpose that was destined to find expression in specific enactments; but only after large comparison of views and earnest debate. Concerning the end desired there was not much of disagreement, but its members were too much in earnest not to differ on a subject so new and so beset with difficulties as to the means best suited to reach that end.