From John Hennessy:

In mid-1862, the Union army struggled with the appearance of thousands of slaves flooding into Union lines at Fredericksburg and in Stafford County. Not only did these former slaves present a logistical challenge, they also challenged the intellectual mettle of the soldiers receiving them–many, if not most, of whom had little interest in emancipation. The legal status of these freedom-sleeking slaves was, before the passage of the Second Confiscation Act on July 16, 1862, ambiguous. Federal law proffered them no protection, and nor did Federal policy offer commanders in the field much guidance. And so they struggled along–going with the flow of contrabands, so to speak, until challenged.

Contrabands near Yorktown in May 1862. There are no known images of contrabands in the Union camps at Stafford that spring and summer.

A revealing challenge took place in June of 1862, when a Maryland slaveowner wrote to Colonel George H. Biddle of the 95th New York, then overseeing operations at Aquia Landing. Thomas Miller of Nanjemoy protested that one of his slaves had run off to Aquia to join his family, which had already taken refuge there. Biddle’s response clearly reflected both discomfort and ambivalence.  He told Miller, “If the man is here and desires to return to you, or if you should come here, and, without threats or violence, induce him to return, I will neither offer nor suffer any resistance. My duty here is simply to enforce the Constitution and laws, as construed by the early fathers, and in obedience to my superior officers.”

Biddle’s letter provoked a furious response from slaveowner Miller–one that faithfully reflects many of the pressures that helped shape Lincoln’s sometimes cautious rhetoric with respect to emancipation and the border states.  He derided Biddle’s claim that  he was “simply here to enforce the Constitution and laws” by pointing out, “In this State [Maryland] the receiving or employing runaway negroes is called harboring, and is a penal offence. I have yet to learn that the statutes of Maryland are violative of the Constitution. There is no man in Maryland more loyal than I, or who has encountered more odium for defending the Government, My loyalty here has been regarded as of the most ultra kind, in proof of which I can refer to every prominent Union man in the State….”

He warmed to his point:  “I am informed…that if I come over and can induce this negro to return with me he will see there is no interference. I am not willing to consult this negro at all in a matter of this sort. He is my property, my money paid for him, and if the Government requires a regiment of soldiers to stand between me and my just rights, I can only say I must submit — I am but an individual. It is not the value of the property that so much concerns me; it is the principle it involves.–Are we of the border States to be taxed to furnish rations to our own negroes. If officers in the army can’t catch slaves for their lawful owners, how is it they can catch them for themselves or for the Government?”

These are precisely the sort of sentiments that inspired Lincoln to limit the reach of the Emancipation Proclamation to only those areas then (as of January 1, 1863) unoccupied and in rebellion. A vivid example from our own back yard, and yet another instance of why our history hereabouts tells us so much that is important about the nation.

The letters of Biddle and Miller were published in the Richmond Daily Dispatch of August 16, 1862, as evidence of disarray of the Union administration in Stafford and the inconsistencies in Union policy (inconsistencies that would be remedied by the Second Confiscation Act and, eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation).

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