Request to the Confederate Army: Treat runaway slaves as traitors – so they can be summarily executed

On to Liberty, Edited
On to Liberty, Theodor Kaufmann, oil painting, 1867; see here for a higher resolution image. (Highly recommended)
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1982.443.3, Gift of Erving and Joyce Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf, 1982
Source Description: Before coming to the United States in 1850, the German-born Kaufmann studied painting in Düsseldorf and Munich and fought in the 1848 popular uprisings in favor of national unity for Germany. As a Union soldier in the American Civil War, he may have seen retreating Confederate troops take their adult male slaves with them, leaving behind the women and children. Here, his portrayal of a group of fleeing figures suggests the lack of a clear route to liberty. They emerge from darkness into light but must traverse a rockstrewn path before arriving on the smooth road leading to the Stars and Stripes, which, however, remains frighteningly close to the ongoing battle.

In November 1860, on the eve of secession and Civil War, Georgia governor Joseph Brown confidently predicted that “we (white southerners) have… little cause of apprehension from a rebellion of our slaves.” He was responding to concerns that a civil war might provide opportunities for slaves to rebel for their freedom.

Governor Brown, who strongly advocated for secession and a confederacy of slave states, was undaunted. Second, he cited what I call the “anti-insurrection infrastructure,” that is, the policies and practices used to prevent an effective slave resistance movement: “The slaves,” he argued, “are usually under the eye of their masters or overseers. Few of them can read or write. They are not permitted to travel on our Railroads, or other public conveyances, without the consent of those having the control of them. They have no mail facilities… and no means of communication with each other at a distance. They are entirely unarmed, and unskilled in the use of arms.” Brown concluded that a “general revolt would therefore be impossible.”

Additionally, he noted, “nine-tenths of them are truly and devotedly attached to their masters and mistresses, and would shed in their defense, the last drop of their blood.” For all to these reasons, Brown saw no reason to worry about the slaves. That was in November 1860, six months before the Civil War began at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina.

A year and six months after the attack on Ft. Sumter, during which the Confederacy and the Union were engaged in a bloody war, a group of Georgians sent a letter to the Confederate government that, if he saw it, would certainly have caused governor Brown great concern. Writing from Liberty County, which is positioned along the Atlantic coast near Savannah, the concerned citizens complained that by August 1862, 20,000 slaves had fled to Union lines. The runaways were giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy by “erecting fortifications and raising provisions” for the Union, acting as spies and guides, even by being “pilots to their vessels on the waters of our inlets and rivers.” This was not only a loss of labor and assets, but it “demoralized” the remaining slave population.

One problem as some whites saw it was that laws for the protection of slave property and the slaves’ lives made it difficult to appropriately punish these fugitives from labor. So, they proposed a solution: the Confederate military should treat these runaways as traitors, and summarily execute them.

The request for the treatment of escaping slaves is noted in this excerpt (from The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series IV, Volume 2, p35-8; Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901):

Savannah, August 5, 1862

Secretary of War:

SIR: I have the honor to inclose a memorial presented by a committee of the citizens of Liberty County, in this State, a community noted for their respectability and worth. The subject presented, I would respectfully submit, is one that demands the early notice of the Congress when it shall reassemble, and the instructions of the War Department (in accordance with such legislation as may be adopted) for the government of military commanders. The evil and danger alluded to may grow into frightful proportions unless checked, but the responsibility of life and death, so liable to be abused, is obviously too great to be intrusted to the hand of every officer whose duties may bring him face to face with this question. It is likely to become one of portentous magnitude if the war continues, and I do not see how it can be properly dealt with except by the supreme legislature of tile country. I deem the action of Congress in this regard as needful for the protection of military commanders as for their guidance. I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Brigadier-General, Commanding,


(To) Brigadier-General MERCER, Commanding Military District of Georgia, Savannah:

GENERAL: The undersigned, citizens of Liberty County, of the Fifteenth District, would respectfully present for your consideration a subject of grave moment, not to themselves only, but to their fellow- citizens of the Confederate States who occupy not only our territory immediately bordering on that of the old United States, but the whole line of our sea-coast from Virginia to Texas.

We allude to the escape of our slaves across the border lines landward, and out to the vessels of the enemy seaward, and to their being also enticed off by those who, having made their escape, return for that purpose, and not infrequently attended by the enemy. The injury inflicted upon the interests of the citizens of the Confederate States by this now constant drain is immense.

Independent of the forcible seizure of slaves by the enemy whenever it lies in his power, and to which we now make no allusion, as the indemnity for this loss will in due time occupy the attention of our Government from ascertained losses on certain parts of our coast, we may set down as a low estimate the number of slaves absconded and enticed off from our sea-board at 20,000, and their value at from $12,000,000 to $15,000,000, to which loss may be added the insecurity of the property along our borders and the demoralization of the negroes that remain, which increases with the continuance of the evil, and may finally result in perfect disorganization and rebellion.

The absconding negroes hold the position of traitors, since they go over to the enemy and afford him aid and comfort by revealing the condition of the districts and cities from which they come, and aiding him in erecting fortifications and raising provisions for his support, and now that the United States have allowed their introduction into their Army and Navy, aiding the enemy by enlisting under his banners, and increasing his resources in men for our annoyance and destruction. Negroes occupy the position of spies also, since they are employed in secret expeditions for obtaining information by transmission of newspapers and by other modes, and act as guides to expeditions on the land and as pilots to their vessels on the waters of our inlets and rivers. They have proved of great value thus far to the coast operations of the enemy, and without their assistance he could not have accomplished as much for our injury and annoyance as he has done; and unless some measures shall be adopted to prevent the escape of the negroes to the enemy, the threat of an army of trained Africans for the coming fall and winter campaigns may become a reality.

Meanwhile the counties along the seaboard will become exhausted of the slave population, which should be retained as far as possible for the raising of provisions and supplies for our forces on the coast. In the absence of penalties of such a nature as to insure respect and dread, the temptations which are spread before the negroes are very strong, and when we consider their condition, their ignorance and credulity, and love of change, must prove in too many cases decidedly successful. No effectual check being interposed to their escape, the desire increases among them in proportion to the extent of its successful gratification, and will spread inland until it will draw negroes from counties far in the interior of the State, and negroes will congregate from every quarter in the counties immediately bordering on the sea and become a lawless set of runaways, corrupting the negroes that remain faithful, depredating on property of all kinds, and resorting, it may be, to deeds of violence, which demonstrates that the whole State is interested in the effort to stop this evil; and already have negroes from Middle Georgia made their escape to the sea-board counties, and through Savannah itself to the enemy.

After consulting the laws of the State we can discover none that meet the case and allow of that prompt execution of a befitting penalty which its urgency demands. The infliction of capital punishment is now confined to the superior court, and any indictment before that court would involve incarceration of the negroes for months, with the prospect of postponement of trial, long litigation, large expense, and doubtful conviction; and, moreover, should the negroes be caught escaping in any numbers, there would not be room in all our jails to receive them. The civil law, therefore, as it now stands cannot come to our protection.

Can we find protection under military law? This is the question we submit to the general in command. Under military law the severest penalties are prescribed for furnishing the enemy with aid and comfort and for acting as spies and traitors, all which the negroes can do as effectually as white men, as facts prove, end as we have already suggested. There can be but little doubt that if negroes are detected in the act of exciting their fellow-slaves to escape or of taking them off, or of returning after having gone to the enemy to induce and aid others to escape, they may in each of these cases be summarily punished under military authority.

But may not the case of negroes taken in the act of absconding singly or in parties, without being directly incited so to do by one or more others, be also summarily dealt with by military authority. Were our white population to act in the same way, would it not be necessary to make a summary example of them, in order to cure the evil or put it under some salutary control? If it be argued that in case of the negroes it would be hard to mete out a similar punishment under similar circumstances, because of their ignorance, pliability, credulity, desire of change, the absence of the political ties of allegiance, and the peculiar status of the race, it may be replied that the negroes constitute a part of the body politic in fact, and should be made to know their duty; that they are perfectly aware that the act which they commit is one of rebellion against the power and authority of their owners and the Government under which they live. They are perfectly aware that they go over to the protection and aid of the enemy who are on tile coast for the purpose of killing their owners and of destroying their property; and they know, further, that if they themselves are found with the enemy that they will be treated as the enemy, namely, shot and destroyed.

To apprehend such transgressors, to confine and punish them privately by owners, or publicly by the citizens of the county by confinement and whipping, and then return them to the plantations, will not abate the evil, for the disaffected will not thereby be reformed, but will remain a leaven of corruption in the mass and stand ready to make any other attempts that may promise success.

It is, indeed, a monstrous evil that we suffer. Our negroes are property, the agricultural class of the Confederacy, upon whose order and continuance so much depends–may go off (inflicting a greet pecuniary loss, both private and public) to the enemy, convey any amount of valuable information, and aid him by building his fortifications, by raising supplies for his armies, by enlisting as soldiers, by acting as spies and as guides and pilots to his expeditions on lend and water, and bringing in the foe upon us to kill and devastate; and yet, if we catch them in the act of going to the enemy we are powerless for the infliction of any punishment adequate to their crime and adequate to fill them with salutary fear of its commission. Surely some remedy should be applied, and that speedily, for the protection of the country aside from all other considerations. A few executions of leading transgressors among them by hanging or shooting would dissipate the ignorance which may be supposed to possess their minds, and which may be pleaded in arrest of judgment.

We do not pray the general in command to issue any order for the government of the citizens in the matter, which, of course, is no part of his duty, but the promulgation of an order to the military for the execution of ringleaders who are detected in stirring up the people to escape, for the execution of all who return, having once escaped, and for the execution of all who are caught in the act of escaping, will speedily be known and understood by the entire slave population, and will do away with all excuses of ignorance, and go very far toward an entire arrest of the evil, while it will enable the citizens to act efficiently in their own sphere whenever circumstances require them to act at all. In an adjoining county, which has lost some 200, since the shooting of two detected in the act of escaping not another attempt has been made, and it has been several weeks since the two were shot.

As law abiding men we do not desire committees of vigilance clothed with plenary powers, nor meetings of the body of our citizens to take the law into their own hands, however justifiable it may be under the peculiar circumstances, and therefore, in the failure of the civil courts to meet the emergency, we refer the subject to the general in command, believing that he has the power to issue the necessary order to the forces under him covering the whole ground, and knowing that by so doing he will receive the commendation and cordial support of the intelligent and law abiding citizens inhabiting the military department over which he presides.

Committee of Citizens of the 15th Dist., Liberty County, Ga.

SOURCE: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series IV, Volume 2, p35-8; Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.

Georgia governor Brown may well have wondered by now, how could I have been so wrong… why didn’t I foresee that the negroes would do this? First, he way over-estimated the slaves devotion and loyalty to their masters. Perhaps there were slaves who genuinely liked or even loved their masters; but they might still have loved the idea of freedom even more.

Second, the “anti-resistance infrastructure” simply broke down place by place with the presence of Union soldiers and the absences of white men who joined the Confederate army. Lacking white men at various localities, there was no way to effectively patrol and control the enslaved population.

And finally, the Union army gave freedom seeking people a place to go. As noted in The Destruction of Slavery (Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867 Series 1, volume 1), “translating escape into freedom was impossible in the absence of a safe harbor.” The Union was not necessarily altruistic in giving shelter to slaves; the US army and navy hoped to deprive Confederates of labor, and use that labor for themselves. Slave liberation came at the intersection of black agency and Union military exigency.

And if the men of Liberty County had believed, like governor Brown, that slaves would “devotedly” go so far as “shed their blood” for their masters’ cause, by August 1862 they came to understand the truth: that Negroes had their own ideas, and would act upon them.

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