The Matter of Slavery

There appears to be much legitimate debate as to the introduction of slavery in the New World. This is understood to have occurred in 1501 or 1502, the slaves being brought into Hispaniola by the Spanish. As early as 1900, John R. Spears posed the question of when in his work, The American Slave Trade. Spears recounted from the records of John Rolfe, the Englishman who married the Indian maiden, Pocahontas, that “a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars came to Jamestown late in August, 1619.”

The Jamestown incident was apparently what history at that time was calling the introduction of slavery, yet a few pages later, Spears raises the question of whether these slaves were the first when he states, “We know the Spanish traded in slaves and the settlement in Florida existed before Jamestown.

Peter Menendez, who held a commission of the King of Spain landed at St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. He undoubtedly had negro slaves in his party. Although many historians continued to follow the Jamestown theory for the introduction of slavery such as Randall and Donald in their work, The Civil War and Reconstruction, others such as Herbert S. Klein and Ivan Van Sertima expounded upon the pre-1619 idea of the Spanish “slavers.” Klein in his work, Slavery in the Americas, spends much time describing the Spanish conquistadors and how they usurped the sanction of the Crown and without authority sought conquest. Klein says that, ” Velazquez, for one, invaded Hispaniola shortly after Columbus and outfitted his private army of conquest for Cuba from the wealth he acquired in Hispaniola.”(see 3)

Relying on the premise that the Spanish used Negro and Indian slaves and had invaded Cuba and Florida long before the colonial period, Ivan Van Sertima stated in his work, African Presence in Early America, that the first Negro slaves were brought into Hispaniola in 1502.(see 4) Taking the theory one step beyond, Van Sertima argues in They Came Before Columbus, that there was an African presence in the New World before Columbus, but this argument is of course the subject of debate.

There is agreement therefore, that the Spanish brought African slaves into North America as part of their exploratory expeditions in the 16th Century. The dates 1501-02 are important as the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of similar or even greater importance is the arrival of 20 black slaves in Jamestown in 1619. Properly speaking, this is the beginning of African-American history.

Since 1619, there has been an uninterrupted presence of African-Americans in this country. Present-day African-Americans have a link or connection to this group of twenty; there has been a continuous presence of Blacks on what is today the soil of the United States ever since 1639.

As a “peculiar institution” in the colonial period, slavery existed in the northern colonies as well as the southern colonies. The plantation society in the South required large numbers of slaves to function at a profit; by the time of the Civil War, there were nearly four million blacks in bondage in the South and another quarter million whose rights were so circumscribed that, for them, the expression “free black” was truly a contradiction in terms.(see 5)

The sale and trading of slaves throughout the colonies, contributed strongly to a mentality that considered Negroes inferior; this carried over to a negative attitude in regard to black participation as Civil War recruits. By 1860, sincere notions of racial inferiority pervaded the North as well as the South. (see 6) These “notions” were of long standing and had been apparent in the military profession for years.

An Act of the General Assembly of Virginia on January 6, 1639, stated that “All persons except Negroes were to be provided with arms and ammunition.” (see 7) As early as 1652 the Massachusetts Colony passed a law requiring all blacks to undergo military training for the defense of the colony but repealed it four years later out of fear of an armed slave revolt.(see 8)

On the other hand, on November 3, 1668, the General Assembly of the Province of New Jersey passed an Act similar to that of Virginia but did not exempt Negroes .(see 9) A shortage of manpower, namely white, did create instances wherein black men served in colonial militias especially in wartime. For example, in the South Carolina Yamasee Indian War of 1715, more than 400 blacks served as combat militiamen for that colony. Even after the War’s end, South Carolina continued to enlist blacks in her colonial militia for many years.(see 10)

By the time of the American Revolution attitudes appeared to have changed. Records show that both slaves and free blacks fought with Generals Edward Braddock and George Washington in the French and Indian War, in 1753. In 1780, a petition was filed in Massachusetts for a casualty payment and pension resulting from the French and Indian conflict on behalf of George Gire, a Negro man living in Grafton, Massachusetts.(see 11) The records also reflect that the Board of Governors of the Colonies were reporting to the Board of Trade the number of Negroes living in the respective colonies on a regular basis from about 1715 onward. In 1715, the total number of Negroes reported was 58,850. The Province of New Jersey reported 1500, both free and slave.(see12) By the eve of the Revolutionary War, there were 501,102 blacks living within the thirteen colonies; New Jersey reported 7,600 blacks, both free and slave. Many of them played important roles in the early days of the young nation’s struggle.

A free black man, Crispus Attucks, was among the mortally wounded in the Boston Massacre. According to the Journals of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts 1774-75, a black man named Prince was wounded fighting with the Minutemen at the Battle of Lexington, April 19,1775. A short time later, Peter Salem, a young black man who had only recently purchased his freedom, fired the shot which killed Major John Pitcairn, at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Pitcairn had given the order to the British troops to fire on the Minutemen at Lexington. (see 13)

Despite their early involvement in the war, Washington ordered colonial recruiters not to enlist blacks. On the other hand, John Murray, governor of Virginia, offered freedom to those slaves who would serve the Loyalist cause and raised a force known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. Alarmed, Continental Army recruiters began to enlist free Negroes.

Interestingly, while only some 5,000 of 300,000 Revolutionary soldiers were black, two, Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell, crossed the Delaware with Washington on Christmas Eve, 1776. In John Trumbull’s famous painting of the event, Whipple is shown pulling an oar. Cromwell, history says, was a Burlington County freeman who served in the Continental Line’s Second New Jersey Regiment from 1777 through 1783. After crossing the Delaware River with Washington’s troops, Cromwell fought in numerous engagements including the famous Battle of Monmouth and survived on a pension until 1853 when he died still a resident of New Jersey.(see 14)

Blacks, it seemed, were integrated; the seven brigades of Washington’s army in 1778 averaged 54 blacks soldiers each. (see 15) An entire regiment of black freemen was raised for the Continental Army on Staten Island, New York, according to the American Archives,(5th Series, Vol.l), and, although most African Americans served in the New England Continental regiments, even New Jersey began recruiting “all able bodied men not being slaves” in 1777. Blacks were also used effectively as spies by the Continental Army. The most notable was Pompey Lamb, who opened the way for the capture of Stoney Point by General Anthony Wayne, on July 15, 1779.(see16)

At the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28,1778, more than seven hundred black soldiers fought side by side with white soldiers to achieve victory against British forces. (see 17) With such a framework of patriotic participation behind them in our young nation’s struggle for independence, the black population of our country probably expected a brighter future. Old ways do not change easily; within a short time after the end of the Revolutionary War blacks were again barred from serving in state militias. The Federal Militia Act of 1792, echoing the previous colonial laws, permitted only “male white citizens” of a certain age to enroll in the militia. The Federal Militia Act, as well as the New Jersey Act which followed it, were both violated “through the back door” since both slaves and free black men were informally attached to militia units serving in the capacity of musicians,laborers and servants.

In less than twenty years the dark clouds of war again hung over the young nation and the need for fighting men changed attitudes again. In 1812, it was clear that blacks were not considered the equal of whites in America but the threat of war soon found African- Americans back in military blue. New Jersey enrolled more than 100 black men as”waiters”, allowing them to draw pay as privates for the War of 1812. Other states, such as New York, actually raised two black regiments during the War of 1812 with black soldiers also serving in Pennsylvania and Maryland.(see 18)

The attitude of inequality did not stop General Andrew Jackson from seeking wartime aid from the free blacks in the Louisiana Territory. Without official consent from the government, Jackson issued a proclamation to the free blacks of Louisiana: Through a mistaken policy you have heretofore been deprived of a participation in the glorious struggle for national rights in which our country is engaged. This no longer shall exist. As sons of freedom you are now called upon to defend our most inestimable blessing. As Americans your country looks with confidence to her adopted children for a valorous support, as a faithful return for the advantages enjoyed under her mild and equitable government.(see 19)

Jackson felt strongly that the policy of ignoring black manpower in wartime was a mistaken indulgence only for the maddest of bigots. However wryly Louisiana’s blacks may have read between the lines of Jackson’s proclamation, they responded positively. Black troops held a strategic position in his defense force.The end of the War of 1812, again brought an end to black inclusion in the United States Army. Black soldiers in Jackson’s service often waited long periods to receive payment for their services; some never received any. The failure to pay these troops prompted Jackson to demand of the Army paymaster: “Is it not enough for you to receive my orders for the payment of necessary muster roll without inquiring whether the troops are white, black or tea?”

Later, the United States War Department, issued an order to ensure that black service in the Army did not become official” The Army in 1820, had specifically forbade enlisting Negroes. This was accomplished in a General Order, dated February 18, 1820: …”No Negro or Mullato will be received as a recruit of the Army…”(see 21) With the official 1820 directive in place, the next forty years saw no potential for black service in the U.S. Army. While the Mexican War proved a vast training ground for future Civil War soldiers such as Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant, and hundreds of others both North and South, with the exception of porters or grave-diggers, the appearance of a black face in an army camp was practically non-existent.

As the question of slavery began to hold the nation’s attention, the movement to abolish slavery began to grow amid fervid passion. Anti-Slavery societies were formed throughout Northern and Southern states, religious leaders preached abolition from the pulpits. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison printed vitriolic anti-slavery sentiments in newspapers circulated in all the states. Garrison, himself, was at the heart of the movement in Boston. In 1831, Garrison founded The Liberator in order to circulate his feelings about slavery.

Others, such as John Brown, raised the sword in the name of abolition as opposed to the pen. A self-proclaimed avenging angel against slavery, Brown moved from Massachusetts to Kansas to the Pennsylvania/Maryland mountains where he formulated his infamous plan to raid the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal in Virginia. With violence and bloodshed in mind if needed, Brown was intent on arming the slaves and causing a premature emancipation by force of arms. A U.S. Marine detachment commanded by then Colonel Robert E. Lee, captured Brown and his band after a short fight which thereafter led to Brown’s conviction for treason and his hanging on December 2, 1859.

Brown’s action however became a rallying cry for abolition. The Abolition Movement had many diverse forms; the best known were the slave rescuing missions. Known as “freedom routes” or the “underground railroad”, these abolitionist efforts brought escaped slaves north or to free states, giving slaves shelter and access and the possibility of complete freedom; they ran as far north as Canada. One of the major routes of the “underground railroad” cut directly across what was then Camden County at a place known at that time as Freehaven, then Snow Hill, later Lawnside. Supported by abolitionist-Quakers in the areas of Haddonfield and Moorestown, the locale thrived as a resting place and home for hundreds of runaway slaves and free slaves years before the outbreak of the Civil War. By then it was already a well established settlement, with churches, schools and shops.

Apparently the time was right for group action. Prejudice had too long stifled the black man’s right to self-fulfillment and personal development and he yearned for the freedom to learn and improve and to attain a better life for himself and his family. For well over a hundred years, slave labor provided the bulk of skilled, as well as unskilled, labor on the southern plantations. Many slaves had been trained as bricklayers, coopers, shoemakers, black and whitesmiths, carpenters, masons, tanners, weavers, tailors and in many instances, gunsmiths.

It was the gunsmith trained slaves that nearly succeeded in arming a full scale slave revolt in South Carolina in 1739. They repaired many broken arms stolen from an arsenal and distributed these to other liberated slaves. The South Carolina Militia engaged the slave army and met with heavy resistance before overcoming them.(see 22) Incidents like this and the other bloody slave insurrections like those led by Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey although striking hard blows at the institution of slavery also created fear in the white population. The thought of armed blacks in and of itself created the emotion of fear in the southern mentality. With the birth of the Abolition Movement a vehicle with white and black coloration was created to accomplish with the word and pen what guns had been unable to do. With white and free black backing, the Movement would strike continual blows at the institution of slavery and a chance to prove himself as a man would be the black man’s next obstacle.(see 23)

As the dark clouds of Civil War began to shade the countryside, the fervent cries of the Abolition Movement reached a high pitch. Frederick Douglass, a former Maryland slave, with a back scarred from the lash, secretly educated by previous owners, issued a monthly periodical in Rochester, New York. He called for the enlistment of blacks in the armed services of the Union and an official end to slavery. Douglass continued at every opportunity to carry forward the banner of black inclusion in the military. However, it became apparent to Douglass in 1861 that the country was just not ready to call the black man for help and he so stated, “Until the nation shall repent of this weakness and folly, until they shall make the cause of their country the cause of freedom, until they shall strike down slavery, the source and center of this gigantic rebellion, they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm, nor will it succeed in crushing the cause of our present troubles”. (see 24)

As eloquent as Frederick Douglass was in his passion for the abolition of slavery and the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army, President Abraham Lincoln was equally eloquent in his opposition. Lincoln’s greatest concern during the early days of the Civil War was to keep the sensitive Border States -Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and parts of Virginia loyal to the Union, and to prevent their secession. One way to retain the loyalty of those Union men and slaveholders was to quiet their fears of invading abolitionist armies bearing emancipation on their bayonets. (see 25)

Nonetheless, many Union commanders used the services of blacks to counter the thousands of slaves who were employed by the Confederacy in labor regiments to free white men for fighting. Often, however, War Department and Presidential directive ended the initial employment of blacks. There was a great difference of opinion on the subject between Union officers; General Benjamin Butler, freely employed both free and “contraband” blacks in Army service. General Henry W. Halleck, issued General Order No. 3, directing that no fugitives “be hereafter permitted to enter the lines of any camp or any forces on the march, and that any now within such lines be immediately excluded therefrom.” (see 26 )

In essence, Halleck’s order returned the “contraband” who had escaped back to the slaveholder. Abolitionists were exerting pressure for acceptance of blacks into the military service. Lincoln took every opportunity to avoid the issue so as not to incite the Border States into secession. As the petitions for Negro enlistment increased and became more insistent, it became clear that the Lincoln Administration had to respond. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, advised that since recruiting had been turned over to the states, demands for colored regiments must be presented to the governors of the respective states.(see 27)

Unfortunately, Cameron’s statement did not sit well with Lincoln. Appointed to the position only because of the support from Pennsylvania given Lincoln’s election, Cameron’s independent course in responding to the black enlistment issue embarrassed the President. Lincoln immediately took advantage of a House of Representatives censure of Cameron for being involved in a corruption ridden army contracts scandal and appointed him Minister to Russia in January, 1862. His statement did, however, give clear evidence of the overly cautious attitude regarding the black enlistment problem that followed in the Capitol. Lincoln now followed Cameron’s new appointment by appointing Edwin Stanton as the new Secretary of War. The abolitionist pressure for a change in attitude in regard to Negro enlistment did not let up on the Administration after the appointment of Stanton.

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act which gave the President discretionary power to use Negro soldiers.(see 28) With the door now open, in September, Lincoln announced his emancipation program and the movement to enlist blacks as soldiers began in earnest in Kansas, Louisiana and South Carolina. On the same day, the 37th Congress also passed the Militia Act, which enabled the President to receive Negroes into the service and set their pay at ten dollars per month.(see 29) This was three dollars less than white privates in the Union Army were receiving, and it subsequently caused serious morale problems within the black regiments. The Militia Act actually empowered the President to enroll “persons of African descent” for “any war service for which they may be found competent”, including service as soldiers.(see 30)

The Administration’s prior lack of movement on the issue led to the common belief that the legislation was not intended to arm blacks but to form them into labor battalions and free up white troops for combat. Prior to the action of Congress in July, 1862, a serious attempt had already been made by a commander to enlist black soldiers into the Union Army. In March, 1862, General David Hunter was appointed Commander of the Department of the South, which included South Carolina, and the Sea Islands, Georgia and Florida. In April, 1862, not only did Hunter abolish slavery throughout his department but he also requested of the War Department authority to arm and equip 50,000 blacks for service against the rebels, going so far as to specify the type of musket to be used and creating a distinctive uniform with red pantaloons.

Hunter’s first action on the abolition of slavery brought him into direct conflict with President Lincoln who quickly abolished Hunter’s abolition as he had done with General John C. Fremont’s similar abolition in Missouri in 1861. As to Hunter’s request of the War Department to enlist blacks in the Army, the most vigorous complaint came from the U.S. Treasury Department. Treasury officials complained that they needed the slaves to operate the abandoned plantations that they were taking over in the areas of Union control. By August, 1862, with Secretary of War Stanton and the War Department unwilling to recognize and pay the black regiment that Hunter had already raised on the Sea Islands, Hunter disbanded it retaining one company in the service.(see 31)

Hunter’s successor, General Rufus Saxton, who took command of the Department of the South in early September, 1862, was successful in getting War Department approval for the formation of a regiment of laborers and soldiers with a pay guarantee. This led to the formation of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers in October,1862.(see 32) Enlistment of blacks as soldiers into the Union Army in Louisiana began on September 27,1862, when General Benjamin F. Butler mustered into service the 1st Louisiana Native Guards (later the 73rd United States Colored Troops). The Confederate Army had, from the outbreak of war, enrolled blacks as laborers, sometimes at gunpoint and under fire from Union troops.(see 33) Few southern blacks or whites advocated enlistment of black freemen and slaves into the Confederate Army. Lower South free people of color petitioned for enlistment and both New Orleans and Mobile enlisted them in Native Guard Units.(see 34)

This was done without official sanction from the Confederate administration at Richmond, Virginia, but labor enrollments continued. Vigorous debate over the use of blacks as soldiers in the Confederate Army went on without letup for nearly the entire length of the War. About one month before the end, the Confederate Congress finally authorized black enlistments which would provide a means for a slave recruit to gain his liberty.(see 35) Few joined the ranks of the failing Confederacy. Confederate General, Howell C. Cobb of Georgia, one of those who steadfastly opposed enlistment of blacks by the Confederate Army, stated, “I think that the proposition to make soldiers of the slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. You cannot make soldiers of slaves’ or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”(see 36)