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In March 1861, Congress proposed a 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It would have stopped the Federal Government from interfering with slavery, but it was never ratified by the states. Four years later, another U.S. Congress passed a very different 13th Amendment abolished slavery forever and freed four million people. It was ratified. From documents in the National Archives, we know that the path to emancipation was a gradual and uneven one. It was shaped by military events, by Government policies, and by the actions of enslaved people who pursued and fought for their freedom.

An officer’s problem

This report describes six men who escaped from slavery to a Union camp during the early months of the war, presenting its commanding officer with a dilemma. The fugitives were from Maryland, a state that had not seceded. Slavery was legal there, but the men were the property of an owner who supported secession. The officer was told to consider the men "contraband"—property seized from rebels. He could refuse to return them.

National Archives, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920



A Freedom Story

Letter from Garland White to E.M. Stanton, offering to raise a black military unit.

"My name is G.H. White formerly the Servant of Robert Toombs of Georgia. Mr. Wm. H. Seward knows something about me. I am now a minister, & and am called upon By my people to render to you Hon. Their willingness to serve as soldiers in the southern parts during the summer season or longer if required. our offer is not for speculation or self interest but for our love for the north & and the government at large, & at the same time we pray god that the triumph of the north & the restoration of the peace if I may call it will prove an eternal overthrow of the institution of slavery which is the cause of all our trouble."

National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War

Letter from Samuel Cabble

Samuel Cabble, an escaped slave, wrote this letter to his wife—but it never reached her. The letter informed Cabble's wife, who was still in slavery, of his whereabouts. "Dear wife" it began, "I have enlisted in the Union army." Samuel Cabble, it appears, had escaped from slavery at the age of 21 and made it to Iowa, where he enlisted in the Union army. He was then sent to Massachusetts where he joined the state's 55th Infantry. Cabble's former owner confiscated the letter before it reached Cabble's wife and used it to apply for compensation. At that time the Union Government provided up to $300 to loyal border state slave holders for each slave released to the U.S. army. There is no evidence that Robert Cabble ever received compensation, probably because he failed to prove his loyalty to the Union and meet other requirements.

Curious to know more about Samuel Cabble and what happened to him, Budge Weidman researched other National Archives records, including the Civil War pension files. She learned that Samuel Cabble's regiment was sent to South Carolina, where he suffered a leg injury from a cannon discharge. He remained with the regiment, despite his injury, and served for three years until the 55th was mustered out in August 1865.

After being discharged, Cabble at last reunited with his wife, Leah. Both free, they could now be legally married. They had a son—Samuel Cabble, Jr.—and headed west to Denver, Colorado. He applied for and received a military pension in 1891. In late 1905, alone and unable to care for himself, he moved to the National Military Home in Leavenworth, Kansas. He died on May 31, 1906.

National Archives, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917

Letter from Spotswood Rice

Letter from Spotswood Rice to his former slave owner, 1864

"I received a leteter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own and you may hold ont hear as long as you can but I want you to remember this one thing that is the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and quicer youll get their for we are now making up a bout one throughsand blacke troops to Come up thrarough and wont to me through Glasgo wand when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbles and to the Slaveholding rebbles for we dont expect to leave them there rott neor branch."

National Archives, Records of U.S. Army Commands, 1821-1920
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Edition of the Circular

Presidents proclaim, legislatures act, and generals order. But junior military officers—lieutenants and captains—often end up carrying out the grand designs set in motion by the powerful. This was certainly the case when a 27-year-old U.S. Army captain from Massachusetts tried to implement Federal policy toward the emancipation of slaves in the small town of New Iberia, Louisiana, in April 1863. His efforts to understand his commanders' intentions and to put confusing Federal policies into practice in occupied territories provided a brief but fascinating Civil War era illustration of how difficult it can be for military officers "on the ground" to carry out orders set in faraway locales by their superiors.

Early Northern justifications for the armed suppression of the rebellion focused on preserving the Union rather than on granting freedom for the millions of black men and women held in bondage in the Confederacy. Early Federal wartime policies toward slavery in occupied territory reassured slaveholders that their property would be safe even as their communities fell under Union control. From President Lincoln on down, most Federal officials hoped to encourage southern Unionists, to keep Border States from seceding, and to avoid inflaming racist Northern public opinion. When a few Union commanders such as David Hunter in South Carolina or John Freemont in Missouri tried to do more by freeing slaves in their jurisdictions, President Lincoln reversed their orders.

An early test of this conciliatory approach came in Louisiana. On April 28, 1862, New Orleans surrendered to U.S. naval forces. The city's new military commander, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, informed citizens that "all forms of property of whatever kind, will be held inviolate." He put slaves seized from disloyal owners to work on Federal projects, but he also left unemployable runaways subject to the "ordinary laws of the community." Nevertheless, over the next few weeks hundreds of slaves ran for the protection of Federal lines. Over the next year, the slave system continued to teeter as Confederate plantation owners abandoned their lands and slaves and as Union soldiers sympathetic to abolition protected runaways and Federal raiders seized more slaves than could be employed--including women, old people, and children. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863, only confused the situation in Louisiana, because it specifically exempted some parishes from its scope.

The Federal occupation of Louisiana and the Emancipation Proclamation raised several questions for Northern officers:
  • Who was free, and who remained a slave?
  • How should black people be employed?
  • What were the rights of the slaves and the rights of the owners?
  • Who would care for the sick and the infirm?
  • Who would punish lawbreaking or unruly ex-slaves?

One man who grappled with these questions was Capt. Alanson B. Long of the 52nd Massachusetts Infantry. Long was an unlikely soldier. Born in 1853, he grew up on a farm in northern Massachusetts, graduated from Dartmouth College, and enrolled in Harvard Law School. But at 24, Alanson was "smitten with paralysis" and left school. Over many months, he recovered enough to make sea voyages that improved his health. He took a job as a high school principal, then enlisted for nine months with the newly formed 52nd. He was chosen captain of Company A.

The 52nd Massachusetts traveled to New York City, then by ship to New Orleans, and finally up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge, where it landed on December 17, 1862. Initially, the 52nd spent most of its time bivouacked, foraging for food and enduring epidemics of typhoid fever and measles that would sicken 80-90 men and kill dozens. But it also carried out a number of "expeditions" into Confederate-held territory, burning plantations owned by rebels and looking to "gobble up" caches of weapons, cotton, sugar, molasses, and livestock to ship to New Orleans.

It was during one of the largest of these expeditions that Captain Long found himself in the middle of emancipation policy. On April 15, 1863 after days of skirmishing with retreating rebels, the 52nd occupied the small town of New Iberia in St. Martin Parish. Four companies, including Company A, were ordered to stay in town while the rest of the regiment continued its march up Bayou Teche. Long was appointed provost marshal and commander. As provost marshal, he was in charge of relations between civilians and the U.S Army in New Iberia as well as the surrounding area including touchy questions about status and treatment of black people and the rights of their owners.

Captain Long took his duties very seriously and plunged into the murky waters of the U.S. Government policy on slavery and emancipation. On April 24, 1863, Long issued a one page "Circular" to the community outlining what he understood to be the Government positions on a variety of issues.

Although Captain Long was trying to clear up public confusion with his circular, he--like many Northern soldiers--was uncertain about what he was supposed to do. On April 23 and April 30, he wrote two letters to the Provost Marshal General's office inquiring about policies "with regard to citizens, property, and slaves," and outlining "the perplexities of my position." He admitted he "perhaps" failed to understand the Federal policy. He had always "encouraged the idea of freedom among slaves," but he had not realized that the Emancipation Proclamation had exempted St. Martin Parish from its provisions.

For Long, freedom seeking slaves had become "a continual source of anxiety and trouble." For example, the Confederate government had brought in many slaves from the outside the area to work "on gunboats and arsenals etc." Now free, they wanted to go home. Long was letting them leave. But he knew that the Union needed their labor to "prosecute govt works that can not be completed with out their aid." He asked, "are they to be advised to return to their masters or compelled"? Furthermore, those who stayed to work for the government needed food and shelter. To make matters worse, "armed bands of negroes" were roaming the countryside, inciting "insurrections," committing "depredations," and bringing whites to "a state of fear and anxiety."

In his first request for instructions, Long asked, "What policy shall be pursued now towards the hundred who come flocking here?" It was a question with no simple answer. That may explain why the captain never received a response. He did, however, try to put into practice his understanding of Federal policy.
  • He attempted when he could, "to return [slaves] to their masters (if they wish to)," but he also tried to feed and clothe former slaves who were "willing laborers for the Gov't.
  • He arrested and imprisoned a white man who shot "a negro boy." But he also endorsed an expedition by the 22nd Maine to punish some of the black "rioters" who had terrorized the white inhabitants of the parish.
  • Long may have also sent men from the 52nd to a nearby town where whites had fought and disarmed a group of blacks. Local citizens hanged the 10 black leaders of the group.

Long's "perplexities," at least for him, were soon resolved. The companies under his command left the town on May 13, stopping along the way at plantations where they would "get all we wanted to eat" because residents feared "they would do worse" than just confiscate food. They were accompanied by 1,200 blacks. Their status as freedpeople may not have been legal, but it was established de facto because of the Federal Government's desire to deprive the rebels of manpower and its own need for labor and troops. Many of these former slaves were gathered into large "labor depots" and probably ended up working on large Government-run plantations.

National Archives Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920

Newspaper Advertisements for Runaway Slaves

Ads that reflected the times . . .

When these Little Rock, Arkansas, newspaper advertisements appeared on October 22, 1862, slavery was under attack. President Lincoln had issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Congress had passed the Confiscation Act and freed slaves in the District of Columbia. And the U.S. Army and Navy were seizing slave "property" in areas captured from the Confederacy. Many black men and women, however, did not wait for others to free them. They acted on their own and ran away.

National Archives, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands
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Emancipation in DC

On April 16, 1862, 8 1/2 months before the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. It provided for immediate emancipation and compensation to owners loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each person freed. Margaret Barber filed this list with the U.S. District Court seeking compensation for her freed slavers. Over nine months, the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, seeking compensation for the freedom of 2,989 people.

National Archives, Records of District Courts of the United States

Not So Fast . . .

On May 9, 1862, Gen. David Hunter declared all slaves in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida "forever free"and authorized them to serve in the U.S. Army. President Lincoln believed only he could give such an order. Twelve days later he issued this proclamation revoking Hunter's edict. He scolded the general for exceeding his authority but warned slaveholders that such an order might "become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government."

President Lincoln was not the only one upset with Gen. David Hunter's order. Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed a bounty on Hunter's head and ordered his execution, if captured.

National Archives, General Records of the U.S. Government
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Impact on the South

The Confederacy depended on enslaved people to build fortifications, cook, drive, supply wagons, work in hospitals, and produce munitions. Slave labor also planted and harvested many Southern crops, especially when white males were away fighting. The Union's decision to emancipate, enlist, and arm black men was an enormous threat to Southern independence.

For the Confederate Quartermaster of the "Trans-Mississippi Department," slaves were a source of labor to be exploited. This broadside promises slave owners compensation for contributing their slaves to the cause, asking: "Your cheerfully yield your children to your country, how can you refuse to hire your servants?"

National Archives, War Department Collection of Confederate Records

A stern warning

Four days after President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, U.S. Brig.Gen. R.H. Milroy put the citizens of Frederick County and Winchester, Virginia, on notice with this order. It warned that all those who opposed the Proclamation would be treated as "rebels in arms." Confederate forces found this copy of Milroy's order and passed it on to Gen. Robert E. Lee as evidence of the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation in Northern Virginia.

National Archives, War Department Collection of Confederate Records

“You will please let me know if we are free”

On April 25, 1864, Annie Davis, a slave living in Maryland, wrote this brief but touching letter to President Abraham Lincoln. In it, she asked if she was free. No reply from the President has been located. The answer to Davis's question, however, would have been "no." Slavery existed in Maryland until November 1, 1864.

National Archives, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917
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A proposed 13th Amendment

As southern states began seceding during the winter of 1860-61, several compromises were proposed to hold the nation together. One was a constitutional amendment that would have prevented Congress from passing legislation interfering with a state's "domestic institutions . . . including that persons held to labor or service." Amendment sponsors hoped its approval would keep border states in the Union and reassure southerners that Republicans opposed only the extension, not the existence, of slavery. Congress approved the amendment, but only two state legislatures ratified it."

National Archives, General Records of the U.S. Government

The Final 13th Amendment

Four years into the war, and four years after Congress approved a constitutional amendment protecting slavery, Congress proposed another Constitutional amendment. This one abolished slavery in the United States. After being signed by President Lincoln, the proposal was ratified by the necessary three quarters of the states. On December 18, 1865, it became the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

National Archives, General Records of the U.S. Government
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The Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It was applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of Federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

From the first days of the Civil War, slaves had acted to secure their own liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation confirmed their insistence that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom. It added moral force to the Union cause and road to slavery's final destruction, the Emancipation Proclamation has assumed a place among the great documents of human freedom.

National Archives, General Records of the U.S. Government
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Deposition before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission

Deposition of Cpl. Octave Johnson before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission

"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 by thirty."

"Eugene Jardeau, master of hounds, hunted us for three months; often those at work would betray those in the swamp, for fear of being implicated in their escape."

"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, 'alligators preferred dog flesh to personal flesh.'"

National Archives, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917
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New Recruits

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation allowed black men to "be received into the armed service of the United States." With the President's signature, millions of formerly enslaved men living in Confederate states became potential recruits—and potential weapons against rebellion. By the end of the war, 200,000 African Americans wold serve in the U.S. Army and Navy, the vast majority of whom had been born in slavery.

National Archives, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1790s-1917

Men of the Corps d’ Afrique, ca. 1864

National Archives, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs
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Testimony of Nancy Johnson

Testimony of Nancy Johnson before the Southern Claims Commission, March 22, 1873.

The Southern Claims Commission was created to compensate loyal southern unionists for property taken by Union soldiers during the war. According to Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-67, Nancy Johnson's husband, Boson, submitted a claim of $514.50 for provisions, a horse, and other animals. He was awarded $155. (Series 1, vol 1, p.154)

"My name is Nancy Johnson. I was born in Ga. I was a slave and became free when the army came here. My master was David Baggs. I live in Canoochie Creek. The claimant is my husband [Boson Johnson]. He was a good Union man during the war. He liked to have lost his life by standing up for the Union party. He was threatened heavy. There was a Yankee prisoner that got away and came to our house at night; we kept him hid in my house a whole day. He sat in my room."

"Some of the rebel soldiers deserted and came to our house and we fed them. They were opposed to the war and didn't own slaves and said they would rather die than fight. Those who were poor white people, who didn't own slaves were some of them Union people. I befriended them because they were on our side."

National Archives, Records of Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury
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“African American laborers near coal wharf, Alexandria, Virginia,” ca. 1863

National Archives, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer

A perplexing situation

After the Emancipation Proclamation, the stream of slaves running to freedom swelled to a flood. Gen. W. Sooy Smith, who commanded Union troops in Tennessee, faced a dilemma. Men loyal to the Union wanted their property returned. But Smith's orders were to refuse such requests. This letter asks how to avoid "the charge of furnishing Asylum to the Servants of loyal men." The War Department usually advised that runaways be employed by the Army.

National Archives, Records of the U.S. Army Continental Commands

Certificate of Freedom

Approved on July 17, 1862, the Second Confiscation Act declared enslaved persons owned by disloyal masters—those not loyal to the Union—"forever emancipated." This pass issued to Wally Caruz and his family amounted to a certificate of freedom.

National Archives, War Department Collection of Confederate Records

A petition from Maine

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was one of the major causes of heightened sectional tension before the Civil War. Two year into the war, these citizens of Farmington, Maine, petitioned Congress to repeal the act. Congress did not rescind it until after 1864.

National Archives, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Fighting in Louisiana

On May 27, 1863, at Port Hudson, Louisiana, more than 1,000 black troops from the Louisiana Native Guards attacked a heavily fortified position. They suffered heavy casualties. Afterwards, one Union officer wrote to his wife: "There can be no question about the good fighting qualities of negroes."

National Archives, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration

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