GDG- Al Mackey's Question

Smith, David [USA] smith_david_g at
Fri Jan 27 08:24:36 CST 2012


Thanks for your question about whether there was a Confederate policy regarding capturing fugitive slaves or free blacks.

I wasn't able to find one directing the captures.  What I did find was a policy concerning what was to be done with captured fugitive slaves - the order used the term "arrested", underscoring the Confederate attitude that these were fugitives being rightfully recaptured.  Apparently some in the Confederate army were holding on to recaptured slaves as body servants - the order directed that they be sent to the rear to "Camps of Instruction" (training camps).  One was at Petersburg, I forget where the other was.  There they were to be held until reclaimed. The order was signed by Walter Taylor of Lee's staff, and is in an obscure microfilm collection of General Orders in the National Archives.   Some years ago Aaron Sheehan-Dean sent me a diary reference of an officer in the Confederate cavalry doing just that, traveling back to reclaim his fugitive slave that had been recaptured.

Some years ago I thought I had found the holy grail when a popular book on the campaign said that Longstreet had ordered the capture of African Americans.  However, I corresponded with the author and he could not remember where he had gotten that information from (he wrote a lot of books).  I now believe he was probably extrapolating from the fact that Maxie Sorrel of Longstreet's staff sent an order regarding disposition of captured "contrabands" on July 1.  But that doesn't prove to me that Longstreet was the original impetus - in fact, it seems unlikely, since Ewell's corps was involved from the beginning, and Longstreet's was the last to enter Pennsylvania.  I'll leave the author nameless since I think he made an honest mistake.

Unfortunately, the Confederate order books I have been able to look at are pretty incomplete for the Pennsylvania campaign.  They don't seem to be well kept up during that time.  

Regarding fugitives versus free blacks, a lot of Confederates did not have a very good knowledge of the North.  I have seen a Richmond newspaper urge in 1862 that retaliation be carried out on Pennsylvania's African Americans, only to say immediately after that words to the effect, "but as there are no Negroes in Pennsylvania, other targets will have to be found."  I think some soldiers would have assumed that every African American they encountered would have been a fugitive slave.  In truth, many fugitive slaves had migrated to that part of Pennsylvania, but south-central Pennsylvania also had a free African American population of its own.  Some Confederate commanders tried to distinguish between the two, one taking a member of the Greencastle town council with him to indicate whether African Americans were local free blacks or fugitives (the story goes that the councilman vouched for every African American he saw, whether they were local or not).  Most rank and file soldiers would not have known this, but in 1840, the Commissioner of the Census (who was a Southerner) had pretty much implied free blacks could not survive in the North without dying or going insane.  I think most Southerners didn't think about big communities of free blacks.

In line with the policy, most African Americans captured in Pennsylvania were sent to Winchester and/or Staunton to be reclaimed by Shenandoah Valley farmers.  Those that were not reclaimed were sent to Richmond - that becomes another part of the story.

Thanks for your interest.

David G. Smith


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