Emancipation: Free the blacks, if only to save the whites

A Harper’s Weekly illustration from mid-1861 depicts black slaves tending a crop (possibly tobacco) at Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital city of the Confederacy. After the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, many Northern whites wondered what to do with them. (Harper’s Weekly)

Sworn into office as Maine’s governor in early January 1863, Abner Coburn of Skowhegan strongly supported raising black regiments — and not just for applying more pressure on the struggling Confederacy.

Enlisting “the negroes for armed service in holding Southern ‘forts, positions and stations’ will be an immeasurable relief to the population of the North,” he commented in his Governor’s Message, read by the Clerk of the House to legislators gathered in the State House in Augusta on Thursday, January 8.

Coburn explained that stationing black troops in the Deep South would eliminate calling up more white troops “to serve in the malarious climate of the Gulf States.” Reflecting a pervasive belief that because they or their ancestors had hailed from Africa, blacks must be immune to tropical diseases, Coburn’s comments made sense to listening legislators — all men, and all white.

They concurred with Coburn that “to oppose this policy is to wantonly sacrifice the precious lives of our young men by exposing them to an extra hazardous service” — exposure to malaria et al — “which negroes can perform without any risk.”

The martial value of black soldiers was not lost on many Mainers, including Coburn. American generals in previous wars (he specifically cited Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison) had “conclusively established the fact that under good discipline negroes make good soldiers,” Coburn noted.

“Let us give them a generous opportunity to prove themselves,” if only because “the war” would “result in their enfranchisement,” so the black soldiers “will be far better prepared to enjoy their freedom rationally and profitably” by fighting for it, he stated.

“No other nation would have hesitated so long to use this potential weapon,” Coburn realized, so “let us now give it a vigorous trial,” and, anyways, deploying black soldiers would “save the lives of thousands of white men who might otherwise be exposed to disease, destitution and death.”

Concerning black enlistment, Coburn addressed a friendly audience. “True to her motto, Dirigo,” Maine was the first loyal state “to pass a resolution in favor of confiscating, liberating, and arming the slaves of rebels, if it should become a military necessity,” Reverend John Stevens Cabot Abbott commented from New Haven, Connecticut.

The Maine Senate had passed the slave-arming resolution, 24-4, on February 8, 1862, “about the same time” that Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck “issued an order” barring “fugitive slaves” from entering Union lines unless the local “general commanding” specifically approved letting the slaves do so.

Halleck, an adequate bureaucratic administrator lacking strategic vision or a warrior’s heart, told his generals that “it does not belong to the military to decide upon the relation of master and slave.

“Such questions must be settled by the civil courts,” Halleck snorted.

Maine’s favorite and moist influential Massachusetts Democrat, Ben Butler commanded Fort Monroe in Virginia when three escaping slaves knocked on his front door on May 23, 1861. Butler refused to return them to their Confederate owner. (Harper’s Weekly)

Events had already bypassed his pronouncement. Maine’s best-known Massachusetts Democrat, Benjamin Franklin Butler, commanded Union-held Fort Monroe in Virginia when three escaping slaves — Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory, and James Townsend — grabbed a skiff, rowed across Hampton Roads, and knocked on his front door on May 23, 1861.

Confederate Maj. John B. Cary appeared at Fort Monroe and asked that the slaves be returned as required by the Fugitive Slave Act. Butler promptly decided — and without notifying the Lincoln administration — that since Virginia now claimed statehood in the Confederacy, he need not return the slaves. He coined the term “contrabands” to describe the escaped slaves’ status as their masters’ property, which under Southern law they legally were.

And by the time of his autumn 1862 replacement by Nathaniel Banks, Ben Butler (by now the choice chamber-pot target of Confederate bladders) fielded black troops in Louisiana. After dithering about black enlistment through mid-year 1862, the Lincoln administration (via Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase) had let Butler know he could create black regiments.

Ironically, responding recruits in New Orleans included many free blacks who had belonged to the Confederate 1st Louisiana Native Guard, formed in May 1861 to bolster the city’s defenses. Some 1,500 free blacks had enlisted in the regiment; letting blacks serve at the company level as captains and first and second lieutenants, Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore had appointed whites as the regiment’s colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major.

The regiment dissolved when Union forces captured New Orleans in spring 1862.

In a newspaper cartoon published shortly after Ben Butler admitted three escaping slaves to Union lines at Fort Monroe in May 1861, a fleeing slave yells at his whip-cracking “massa” that he cannot return because he is now “contraband,” the term that Butler coined to describe fleeing slaves. (Library of Congress)

Sufficient free blacks responded to Butler’s recruiting efforts that he accepted into Federal service three regiments: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, all officered at the company level by blacks. The 2nd Louisiana fielded a black major, the highest such rank reached by black soldiers during the Civil War.

Curious white soldiers watched the black soldiers drill and maneuver. From what he had observed, black men made darn good soldiers, albeit as not yet combat tested, Corp. John A. Dicker of Orono and Co. F, 12th Maine Infantry Regiment, informed his father, Thomas, from Camp Parapet on November 13, 1862.

“Butler has raised quite a little army here in this State,” Dicker noted. Sufficient local whites had enlisted to form the 1st and 2nd Louisiana infantry regiments, plus “two full companies of cavalry,” and another 1,200 to 1,500 whites “have enlisted in our Northern regiments,” he said.

And “three full regiments of blacks are armed and equipped in good style,” Dicker reported.

Sources: Governor’s Message, Daily Whig & Courier, Friday, January 9, 1862; Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, December 15, 1862

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

 

 

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.