Blacks Captured At Gettysburg By Union Forces …

One way to address assertions that many blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate armies is to look at what happened to blacks captured by Union forces.  How were they treated?  How were they classified?  What happened to them?

As James M. Paradis’s study of African Americans during the Gettysburg campaign reminds us, Union forces did capture blacks at Gettysburg as well as during the entire campaign.  Many of them were sent to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.  There Brigadier General W. W. Morris reported that of the sixty-four blacks who arrived at his installation, they were servants of officers.  Sixteen enlisted in Union ranks; four more enlisted as cooks in an artillery regiment; four decided to cast their fortunes with a New York militia unit (and then left the area), and forty were still present, “chiefly employed in police duty.”  Some of them were now working for Union officers (and were paid); others were free Negroes who wished to return to their families.

Paradis describes an ensuing discussion of the status of these captured blacks and their disposition.  Were they prisoners of war (and thus subject to exchange)?  Was it better to put them to work “as paid laborers and teamsters,” allow those blacks who were free to return home (whether counted as exchanged prisoners or not), or should Union authorities retain them “as prisoners, but not prisoners of war”?  A November 1863 accounting of the remaining thirty-two blacks at Fort McHenry showed that sixteen were being employed, ten were now cooks with the volunteer artillery regiment stationed there, and six had escaped.

The following month the War Department issued new regulations concerning these captured blacks.  They would not be part of any exchange of prisoners; they would be given a chance to take the oath of allegiance, and, if they did, they would be released.  Those blacks who did not take the oath of allegiance would be retained as prisoners of war.  As to how many blacks did (and did not) take the oath of allegiance at that point, Paradis does not say.

Note the absence of any captured blacks classified as soldiers.  Note also the fact that many of those loyal servants took the chance of their imprisonment to strike out on their own of choose to become employees of Union officers.

What do we make of this?

UPDATE (June 18, 2013): Thanks to a friend (and the administrative portions of this blog platform), I’ve learned that this blog entry has been the subject of some recent discussion (some of it heated and personal) at CivilWarTalk.com.  You can read some at least some of the archives without joining. Here’s the link to a report in a Richmond paper in October 1863 concerning the forty or so blacks who remained at Fort McHenry after arrangements were made for some of the sixty four men who arrived. The paper quotes a person named R. W. Daniel who had been imprisoned at Fort McHenry as follows:

Lieut. Daniel informs us that there are some 35 or 40 negroes also in Fort McHenry, all of whom were taken at Gettysburg. He says they profess an undying attachment for the South. Several times Gen. Schenck has offered to release them from the fort if they would take the oath of allegiance to the Federal Government and join the Lincoln army. They have peremptorily refused in every instance, and claim that they should be restored to their masters and homes in the South. They say they would prefer death to liberty on the terms proposed by Schenck.

Note that nothing in this report (which escaped Paradis’s view) concerns the issue of the blacks as soldiers. So we can set that aside. What might interest others, of course, is the claim that these fellows “preferred death to liberty” and declined to join the Union army.

Perhaps … yet a month after this report appeared, only six of the blacks appeared to have risked death by liberating themselves, and we don’t know where they went. The remainder apparently reconsidered their decision, and were now employed in one way or another, with ten having enlisted as cooks for the New York artillery unit there.

Since Paradis was not aware of this, I was unaware of it, but this newspaper item needs to be read in context. Not a single captured black argued loyalty to the Confederate cause. Understandably some of them wanted to go home. However, we may conclude that perhaps Daniel or a reporter embellished the story, given the situation bu the end of November. Apparently some of those men preferred liberty to death after all.

As I said, there’s a vigorous discussion about this at CivilWarTalk, which I found interesting as well as amusing (it goes on for several screens, breaking down as it proceeds). It would seem that if the fellow (only a screen name shows) who brought this report to light was truly interested in increasing historical understanding (instead of using the information to cast aspersions and to engage in all sorts of speculation), he would have forwarded the information to this blog. Instead, he exclaims:  “I wonder why Simpson didn’t use this account of the same event, didn’t fit his agenda?”

My agenda was simply to find out what happened, and I thank the mystery poster … although it was someone else who brought it to my attention. As to why the mystery poster failed to do so, or why he failed to place it into context with the information already available to him, well, you’ll have to join the group and ask him. Maybe it didn’t fit his agenda.  🙂

13 thoughts on “Blacks Captured At Gettysburg By Union Forces …

  1. Andy Hall July 27, 2011 / 12:23 pm

    The immediate takeaway is that the Union army, even after implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation, hadn’t really thought through how they were going to handle African Americans swept up with Confederate armies — some free, most slaves, some apparently choosing to remain with their masters in the pen, most servants but others of indeterminate combatant status, and so on. This lack of foresight was typical of the PoW systems on both sides, and there was much unnecessary human suffering as a result.

    Corey Meyer highlights an interesting case of a black man, a servant named Isaac Cox, who was captured in Ohio with Morgan’s Raiders. The only record we have of Cox comes from Federal PoW records and the book, To Die in Chicago, that provides a concrete example of how utterly unprepared the Union was, relatively late in the war, to deal with African Americans who were not obviously contrabands. In Cox’s case, he was imprisoned at Camp Douglas in Chicago for about seven months, including through most of the winter of 1863-64, before he was formally determined to be a slave and was released on the orders of Secretary of War Stanton. (The card in his CSR noting his release is pre-printed to indicate that the subject took the oath of allegiance, but I’m not sure that would have been so in Cox’s case.)

    Finally, nice to see some blog love for Paradis’ book. He goes a little wobbly for about a page and half on black Confederates — which reads to me like a last-minute addition to the text — but it’s a neat little book.

  2. Donald R. Shaffer July 27, 2011 / 1:33 pm

    Brooks – just out of curiosity given my blog entry earlier today. Does Paradis say whether any of these African Americans captured at Gettysburg with the Confederates were armed when they were captured?

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 27, 2011 / 1:45 pm

      Not in that particular section. Elsewhere Paradis does discuss the case of one Charles F. Lutz of the 8th Louisiana Infantry, a free black who was wounded and captured on July 2. But as for the original sixty-four brought to Fort McHenry, no, nothing is said as to whether they were armed in the documents Paradis cites.

      • Lyle Smith July 27, 2011 / 3:44 pm

        Lutz is pretty interesting. The Scott Mingus book on the Tigers at Gettysburg says that he was also captured at the Battle of Second Fredericksburg and a was a prisoner for two weeks or so, and then went right back to his unit.

        In the end notes Mingus mentions that Lutz in future U.S. census’ claim to be white though by marking white on the Census forms.

        • Lyle Smith July 27, 2011 / 3:46 pm

          Lutz was clearly exceptional case.

  3. Donald R. Shaffer July 27, 2011 / 2:30 pm

    Hi Brooks. Thanks for checking. The number captured seems high (?) at 64 and the fact they were in a position to be captured. It would interesting to know if they were captured with Confederate troops, whether they escaped to Union lines, got left behind, or whatever was the circumstances of their capture. Does Paradis say anything about that?

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 27, 2011 / 2:39 pm

      Since the original document in question is dated July 30 and it’s from Fort McHenry, I doubt the reporting official knew about the circumstances of capture. I suspect not all of these blacks were captured on the battlefield proper.

      • James F. Epperson July 27, 2011 / 2:56 pm

        I suspect many of them were among those swept up in the pursuit.

  4. Mike Furlan July 27, 2011 / 3:22 pm

    We have been here before.

    “. . .Lutz was probably the only one who passed for and enlisted as
    white.”

    “Louisiana’s Free Men of Color” by Art Bergeron

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 27, 2011 / 3:31 pm

      Some of us have been here before. But not all.

      That said, I’m always a bit amused when people try to project the actions of the free black population in Louisiana to that of the Confederacy at large. It was a far different situation. It would be wrong to discount it altogether, but it would also be wrong to claim it as representative.

  5. TF Smith July 27, 2011 / 9:22 pm

    I like the classical meaning of “police duties” – talk about Old Army.

  6. Thomas Jackson June 28, 2013 / 11:02 am

    Could have been that the reason some blacks wanted to go back to their masters was because some of them still had family members still in slavery with those masters?

  7. Thomas Elmore November 21, 2013 / 3:06 pm

    Concerning Gettysburg, I have identified four black servants who were captured while tending to their wounded or dead masters (one of these had his master’s body embalmed and returned to southern lines to escort the body back to Mississippi); one black cook captured with the wagon trains who was reported to have escaped to southern lines by swimming the Rappahannock; one black servant who was captured while straggling (whether intentionally or not); and one black servant who escaped by hiding in a house on the battlefield. Separately, a tally of Confederate prisoners at Johnson’s Island taken on 1 February 1864 lists a total of 2,613 officers and four blacks (“negro”).

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