Freedom from Shame: “A Christian and civilized city… should not be subjected… to the humiliating spectacle of a woman chained and pinioned and driven along the streets”



Slaves in chains: a not uncommon sight in the Antebellum South
Image: A slave-coffle passing the Capitol; Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-2574

Shame freed two black women from bondage in Tennessee during the Civil War.

The state of Tennessee was not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time the EP was issued (1/1/1863), most of the state was under US military control. As such, Tennessee was no longer considered to be in rebellion against the United States; and only  states that were controlled by Confederate rebels were covered by the Proclamation.

As such, slaveholders in Tennessee still had a legal right to chattel property. However, in March 1862, “the US Congress adopted an additional article of war forbidding members of the army and navy to return fugitive slaves to their owners.” In addition, Union Provost Marshal organizations had some leeway to enforce the law as they deemed appropriate and necessary. The Provost Marshal were Union military authorities who acted as a local police force in areas that were reclaimed from the Confederates. This would give the enslaved opportunities for freedom even in a Union slave state.

In February 1864, Major John W Horner, a Provost Marshal in Nashville, TN, was disturbed to see a young woman “with her arms securely tied behind her” walking behind a buggy on the streets of the city. He found the scene a “brutal and revolting act” that “subject(ed) a civilized and Christian city to the humiliating spectacle of a women chained and pinioned and driven along the streets.”

He details the scene and his response to it in this correspondence to the Provost Marshal of the District of Nashville, dated February 27, 1864:

While riding along Cedar Street in this city today on the way to my office I overtook a lady riding in a buggy with a Negro girl while behind the buggy with her arms securely tied behind her walked a Negro woman with a man beside her apparently guarding her.

This unusual spectacle attracted my attention and I at once I accosted the man and demanded to know by what authority this woman was being conducted along the streets in this manner. He immediately produced a written permit or what purported to be such to one Mrs. Baker to take the two Negro women to her home mentioned by name and forbidding any civil or military authority to interfere with her doing so.

Said permit was dated “Head Qrs District Nashville Feby 4th 1864” and signed “By command of Maj Gen Rousseau H Tompkins 1st Lt 19th Michn and A Pro Mar”; Although the act of their returning a fugitive from labor (as the man confessed the woman to be) was evidently in contravention of the acts of Congress and a violation of the highest Military authority of the land as set forth in the Proclamation of the president of the United States, in as much as it appeared to bear the sanction of superior Military authority I did not interfere but handed back the permit after reading and permitted the party to proceed —

Shortly after reaching my office the aforementioned party were brought to me by a guard under arrest. The guard informed me that they had been arrested by the officer in charge of the guard at the Bridge at the river for attempting to pass there the Negro women having no passes and the white man insisting upon his right to take them across on his permit which he exhibited to me being the one I had seen before and which was in form and language as follows

Head Qrs District Nashville
Nashville Tenn Feby 4th 1864

Permission is hereby granted to Mrs S. F. Baker of Davidson County Tenn to take to her home the following Negro women Hannah and Becky (2). Mrs Baker is a good loyal lady and the general commanding districts dive racks that she will not be interfered with by any authority either civil or military.

By command of Maj Gen Rousseau
H Tompkins 1st Lt 19th Michn and A Pro Mar

In answer to my interrogations Mrs Baker informed me that Hannah and Becky were both her servants — that Hannah had run away about three months before Christmas and came to Nashville—that Becky was sent to Nashville on an errand Christmas and had never come back — that they were both unwilling to go back and that she had to go to Gen. Ruusseau to get permission to take them —both the Negro women declaring in my presence their unwillingness to return—

Baker then asked I would give him a pass for the two women through the lines which I refused to do informing him that for any officer to assist in any manner directly or indirectly in returning to slavery fugitive slaves from labor was a violation of the highest Military authority—

I then released the entire party from arrest—Baker in committing this outrage has undoubtedly abused his permit as the general commanding district most certainly did not intend to authorize the return and surrender by force and violence of a fugitive from labor. –

I beg that the attention of the proper authorities maybe be called to this brutal and revolting act that this fellow Baker may be fitly punished for subjecting a civilized and Christian city to the humiliating spectacle of a woman chained and pinioned and driven along the streets. Very respectfully

John W Horner

Major John W Horner to Major W. R. Rowley, 27 February 1864
Nashville Tennessee Provost Marshal field organization​

Note that, Major Horner does not free the two servants according to the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation, although he references the Proclamation in his statement. Ostensibly, Horner invokes the prohibition against the use of the military to return runaway slaves as his reason for allowing the enslaved women to go free.

But in the main, his act of liberation sprang from his sense of outrage, that his sensibilities had been inflamed by this “spectacle of humiliation.” Of course, such scenes were not uncommon in the Antebellum South, and would not have inflamed the sensibilities of white Southerners. But the times were changing. And now, shame was enough to give two women their freedom.

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