Escaped New Orleans slave made a good Maine soldier

On June 16, 1862, a New Orleans businessman named B. Bronson discovered that his “light mulatto” slave, Calvin McRae, had run away. With Union troops occupying the Big Easy, Bronson probably figured he would never see Calvin again.

An enigmatic character, the “B Bronson” recorded in the June 28, 1860 census of “free inhabitants” of the Third Ward of New Orleans worked as a “Trunkmaker.” He lived at 106 Perdido in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood of mixed ethnic and national origins. The 54-year-old Bronson was born in Massachusetts, his 37-year-old wife Isabella in England, and their children Alfred and Ava in Louisiana. By spring 1862 Bronson had moved his business to a “carriage repository” at 74 Carondelet Street in New Orleans.

On Saturday, June 21, “as I was passing Lafayette Square, I found the said slave with a United States uniform on, standing guard just above the Brooks House, on Camp street,” Bronson informed Col. Frank S. Nickerson of the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment on June 23. Calvin McRae had “enlisted [in the 14th Maine] as a United States soldier, assuming to be a white man. I have the documents to prove him a slave.”

A black Union soldier stands guard duty in cold weather, as indicated by the mitten covering his right hand. (Alfred R. Waud, Library of Congress)

Nickerson raised an eyebrow when Bronson’s “demand for his [McRae’s] surrender” arrived. And rather than deliver the demand himself, Bronson dispatched it via his agent, E.W. Herrick. A “carriage dealer” by trade, he lived in Jefferson City, Louisiana and hailed from Vermont and his 37-year-old wife “M. Herrick” from Louisiana. New England natives Bronson and Herrick had no problem making money in a slave-owning culture.

Nickerson went with Herrick to locate McRae. “I … found him to be a white man—as white as I am,” noted Nickerson. “Therefore I required the proper proof that he was a slave.”

Bronson’s ownership papers stated that McRae “was so white that a stranger would not suspect him of being a black man,” Nickerson later informed Maine State Senator B.M. Roberts.

Many white Northerners thought that slaves universally had dark skin. Generations of ill-use of women slaves by white men (often plantation owners and their sons) had bred lighter shades among many offspring, however, and terms like “mulatto” and “yellow” described such skin tones, especially in laissez faire New Orleans.

Many Union boys were realizing that the South’s antiquated slavery laws cast a wide miscegenetic net. In late autumn 1862, Corporal John A. Dicker of Orono and Co. F, 12th Maine Infantry watched the black men joining the colored regiments forming in New Orleans.

Escaping blacks “are coming in here every day in squads of from ten to thirty at a time,” Dicker said, noticing the diverse hues among the men, women, and children reaching Union lines. Colorations ranged from deep black to skin as light as that of most Mainers.

Some of them (blacks) are as white as I am, and could walk the streets of Orono, and you would not suppose they were negroes for a moment,” Dicker said. “If they fail” to qualify as white, “it will not be for the want of white blood in their veins.”

Dithering and dallying, Frank Nickerson delayed releasing McRae to Bronson, who soon appealed to Maj.. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the Union commander in New Orleans. On July 7 Butler dashed off terse instructions concerning McRae.

You will forthwith discharge him” to Bronson, Butler informed Nickerson.

That order “was not obeyed,” Nickerson told Senator Roberts. The 14th Maine went upriver to fight at Baton Rouge in August, and “Calvin did not return; he still serves with us as a soldier; distinguished himself at Baton Rouge, and is one of the best soldiers in the 14th Regiment,” Nickerson reported in February 1863.

I say without fear of contradiction, that he [McRae] is one of the best drilled, and the best soldier in every respect, in the Regiment,” he stated. “There is not a man who knows him who would not forcibly resist the attempt to take him out. This is but one instance of negro soldiers.”

Calvin McRae capably served in the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment until killed in action at Port Hudson, Louisiana on July 1, 1863.

Sources: 1850 U.S. Census, New Orleans; 1860 U.S. Census, New Orleans; Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1863; Employment of Colored Men, Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, December 15, 1862; and Kennebec Journal, Friday, May 29, 1863; Gardner’s New Orleans directory, 78

10 Responses to Escaped New Orleans slave made a good Maine soldier

  1. Brian, thank you for sharing the interesting story of Calvin McRae. Union commanders were frequently confronted with a difficult dilemma, to return escaped slaves to their owners, as required by the law, or to ensure their liberty, as promised by the Declaration of Independence. General Charles Pomeroy Stone chose to obey the law and suffered illegitimate consequences urged by U.S. Congress and inflicted by the U.S. Army.

  2. Whether to live as a slave or die as a free man. I can see him in the echoes of Nathan Hale’s last words.

  3. And so the Pious Cause spin continues by the author of this column:

    “Generations of ill-use of women slaves by white men (often plantation owners and their sons) had bred lighter shades among many offspring, however, and terms like “mulatto” and “yellow” described such skin tones, especially in laissez faire New Orleans.”

    It is automatically assumed by this author that the relationship between master and female slaves must be “ill-use,” an obvious attempt to vilify the relationship without going so far to call it “rape.”

    Rape cannot exist where consent is involved, regardless of the social standing of the participants. Perhaps the author knows that by the time of the two generations of people leading up to the Civil War, the South had laws protecting the slaves from abuse. This protection is a topic of discussion in Northern Boston abolitionist, Dr. Nehemiah Adams’, 1854 study of Southern slavery titled “A Southside View of Slavery.” In it Adams points out that, “In Georgia it is much safer to kill a white man than a Negro; and if either is done in South Carolina, the law is exceedingly apt to be put in force…. Offenders do not escape more frequently at the south, by legal quibbles, imperfect legislation, and the ingenuity of lawyers than in the free states.” This study is rigorously suppressed by modern Pious Cause historians because it pulls the rug out from under their theme of abused slaves being rescued by Northern white liberators.

    These protective laws were a product not only of the social ethos of the South, but also a product of the long standing legal position that the masters owned only the labor and not the person of the slave. This preserved the slave’s due process rights in court as a “person” and not mere “property.” This very legal standing was part of the South’s argument for representation of the slaves in Congress during the founding debates.

    When Pious Cause historians spin the narrative as is the case here, creating the impression of mass abuse of slaves when in reality abuse was a very minimal exception, the dishonest product is ahistorical propaganda.

    1. I think a quick review of first person accounts by actual enslaved persons, such as Harriet Jacobs, demonstrate that enslaved women experienced a great deal of “ill use.” In the case described in “Celia, A Slave” a Missouri court ruled that an enslaved woman couldn’t defend herself against the sexual advances of her owner. Like Sally Hemmings, Celia was fourteen when her master…well we can’t really say rape can we? What happened may have looked like rape, or have been rape, if the woman had been white, but you know, there were these protective laws.

    2. Ellen Craft was born in 1826 in Clinton, Georgia, to Maria, a mixed-race enslaved woman, and her wealthy planter owner, Major James Smith. At least three-quarters European by ancestry, Ellen was very fair-skinned and resembled her white half-siblings, who were her enslaver’s legitimate children.

      Ellen Craft (1826–1891) and William Craft (September 25, 1824 – January 29, 1900) were American fugitives who were born and enslaved in Macon, Georgia. They escaped to the North in December 1848 by traveling by train and steamboat, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. Ellen crossed the boundaries of race, class and gender by passing as a white male planter with William posing as her personal servant.

      1. Doh! I failed to give Wikipedia credit. My bad. I donate to them and recommend others do so, too.

  4. Interesting article. I am surprised by Butler ordering the man to be returned. I was under the impression that Butler was supportive of enslaved persons.

  5. I’m a skeptic of “This very legal standing was part of the South’s argument for representation of the slaves in Congress during the founding debates.” The proposition has its antecedents in the debates on the Articles of Confederation taxation provisions. There was general agreement that states would be taxed on the basis of “wealth”. The problem was defining and measuring wealth. It was proposed to use population as a proxy. The slave-holding states argued that slave population was not as productive as the free, and hence did not contribute to “wealth”, so slave population should not be counted. The result was the “3/5ths” compromise. In the end, the population proxy method was not adopted in the Articles, but was resurrected during debates on the Constitution. Today post Amendment XVI we don’t really consider the role of direct taxes and their apportionment to the states by population. (That amendment reversed Supreme Court decisions by clarifying that a tax on incomes was not a direct tax, regardless of source of income).

  6. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!