“We Come Out of Kentucky Unsoiled by Her Slavery Principles:” Anti-Slavery Federals in the Bluegrass State – Part I

On November 5, 1861, Brig. Gen. Alexander McCook wrote frantically to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman from Camp Nevin, Kentucky, near Elizabethtown. McCook sought advice on what to do with the enslaved people who came into his camp seeking freedom and protection. “Ten have come into my Camp within as many hours, and from what they say, there will be a general Stampeed of slaves from the other side of the Green River—They have already become a source of annoyance to me, and I have great reason to believe that this annoyance will increase the longer we stay,” McCook penned.

Brig. Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook was perplexed about the enslaved people coming into his camps. He sought advice from his superior Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On one hand, McCook showed concern that if these self-liberated people remained with his troops “our cause in Kentucky may be injured.” But on the other hand, McCook had “no faith in Kentucky’s loyalty” and therefore felt “no great desire to protect her pet institution.” From McCook’s point of view, returning the enslaved to their “recreant masters” only aided the enemy, who in turn spread lies to “the uninformed that this is a war upon African slavery.”

McCook explained that he had “put the negroe’s to work—They will be handy with the teams, and generally useful.” Still he sought Sherman’s advice and asked to “defer to your better judgment.” Before closing, McCook added: “The negroes that came in to day state that their master’s had notified them to be ready to go south with them on Monday Morning, and [the enslaved men] left on Sunday night.”[1]

Sherman responded three days later from his headquarters in Louisville. “I have no instructions from the Government on the subject of Negroes, my opinion is that the laws of Kentucky are in full force and that negroes must be surrendered on application of their masters or agents or delivered to the sheriff of the County,” he explained. Further, Sherman believed that “We have nothing to do with them at all and you should not let them take refuge in Camp.” Doing so would create “a source of misrepresentation by which Union men are estranged from our Cause.” The bottom line for Sherman was that Blacks were not to be believed and he wanted his subordinates to “send them away.”[2]

However, due to their desire for freedom, the United States army’s issues with self-emancipated people continued to come up over the next year. The problems grew especially acute when some regimental and company commanders from recently recruited units who had answered “Father Abraham’s” call for 300,000 more volunteers, brought their anti-slavery and abolitionist sentiments with them into the Bluegrass State. Others became almost overnight abolitionists once they witnessed slavery first hand.

One such individual was Col. Smith D. Atkins, who commanded the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry. By early November 1862, Atkins found himself in hot water. While stationed at Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, 15 freedom-seeking individuals came into his camp who claimed that their enslavers supported secession. They became officers’ servants and were considered free by the regiment “by the terms of the confiscation act, and their employment by the officers of the 92nd gave practical force and effect to the law—nothing more,” claimed a news story that circulated in several northern newspapers.[3] Finding Atkins unmovable, the enslavers petitioned Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. Granger, who would interestingly issue the “Juneteenth” emancipation order in Texas in 1865, wanted Atkins to return their human property. On November 4, Granger issued General Order 15, which in part stated, “No citizen nor non-combatant will be permitted within the lines of this army, without special authority to that effect.”[4]

Col. Smith D. Atkins, 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry, refused to return self-emancipated people to their former enslavers. Courtesy of the United States Army Heritage and Education Center.

In much of Atkins correspondence, he like many of his Federal cohorts used derogatory racial language while still expressing anti-slavery sentiments. While most 21st Century Americans see these ideas as incongruous, it was quite common for whites who were against slavery and the recurring problems the institution brought to the Union to also believe that Blacks were inferior beings.

In a letter from Atkins to a friend in Chicago on November 2, 1862, Atkins mentions the recent controversy as Granger issued his order the same day. “My superior Commanders order me to give up the niggers. Ought I to do it? I love my county, Miller; I have risked my life in its battles and am willing to do so again and again. I am deeply anxious to do my whole duty.” However, Atkins claimed (incorrectly as Kentucky was excluded) that because of Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation “I cannot conscientiously force my boys to become the slavehounds of Kentuckians & I am determined that I will not.” Atkins anticipated his arrest and or court martial, and wanted his friends to know that “it is not for cowardice or disqualification but Simply because I will not make myself & my regiment a machine to enforce the slave laws of Kentucky & return slaves to rebel masters. If I go down in disgrace it will be with a clear conscience. . . .”[5]

Probably frustrated with the whole situation and unwilling to lose a quality soldier like Atkins, Gen. Granger sent the 92nd Illinois away from Mt. Sterling. However, Atkins’s troubles were not over. Writing from Nicholasville on November 25, Atkins explained that on the way there, in both Winchester and Lexington, the Illinois soldiers met hostile citizens. In the former town, the 14th Kentucky (US) attempted to “take by force, servants from my lines, while marching along,” Atkins noted. To defend themselves and those in their protection, the 92nd “were compelled to march through the town with bayonets fixed and guns loaded.” In Lexington, “a similar affair took place, and a riot nearly occasioned.”[6]

Proslavery Unionist Kentuckians—especially those serving in Kentucky Federal regiments—were incensed about what they perceived as attacks on their property rights. Capt. Charles S. Rogers of the 10th Kentucky Cavalry wrote to Granger about this time complaining about Atkins and his regiment. Rogers explained that three enslaved men named Lyrus, Moley, and Henry, who he stated belonged to his uncle “were enticed from their owner at Mount Sterling Ky. by soldiers of the 92nd Illinois Regiment.” Also lost were others: “Henry, slave of Mrs. B. White, and Charles slave of James McGowan.” Rogers requested that if Granger could do “anything he can do for owners of said slaves, it will be appreciated, and we soldiers of Kentucky, can have some assurance, that our property is being protected at home, while we are away battling for our loved Country.”[7]

Another Kentucky soldier, Col. Marcellus Mundy of the 23rd Kentucky Infantry, who was at the time detached and serving in Louisville, went to the top by writing to President Lincoln on November 27, complaining about another regiment. “I have not only suffered pecuniary loss from rebel depredations but worse still federal officers, particularly those of the 18th Michigan Infantry Volunteers have taken within their lines and hold the negroes of my loyal neighbors and myself. That regiment had now not less than twenty five negroes in Camp . . . who belong to loyal union men . . .  and among the rest one of mine.” Mundy penned. Miffed that writs were issued but “disobeyed by the officer [of the regiment]” and that “the Civil authorities [were] defied.” Mundy further explained that the enslaved people received information through “abolition officers from Michigan and other north states now serving in Kentucky, that on the first day of January next, they are all to be free, and will have the right even to kill their masters who may attempt to restrain them. . . .”[8]

Col. Marcellus Mundy, 23rd Kentucky Infantry, expressed his perspective to President Lincoln and complained about the anti-slavery activities of the 18th Michigan Infantry . Public domain.

Mundy also let the president know that he had sacrificed a successful Philadelphia law practice to answer to his country’s call. And while he disagreed with the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, because of what it had so far produced in relation to the enslaved property of loyal citizens, he thought the Confiscation Acts were appropriate. Mundy claimed he was soldier and would do whatever ordered, but added “were I Commander in Chief I would never trample upon the Constitutional rights of a loyal people in a loyal state whereby our friends would be estranged and our enemies advantaged.”[9]

[1] Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven Miller, et al, Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War, The New Press, 1992, 13-14.

[2] Ibid, 15.

[3] Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1862.

[4] Berlin, Fields, Miller, et al. Free at Last, 76-77

[5] Ibid, 74-75.

[6] Ibid, 77.

[7] Ibid 79-80.

[8] Ibid 82-83.

[9] Ibid, 83.

3 Responses to “We Come Out of Kentucky Unsoiled by Her Slavery Principles:” Anti-Slavery Federals in the Bluegrass State – Part I

  1. Great article enhanced by use of primary source letters/documents. Similar episodes were occurring in other places at the same time – of particular interest are the fugitive enslaved people who arrived at Fort Monroe in Virginia, commanded at the time by Benjamin Butler, who futilely sought guidance from the War Department about what to do with them. Butler deemed these fugitives, whom he took in and put to work, as “contrabands,” on grounds that they were the “property” of citizens in rebellion and thus subject to confiscation by the federal government.

  2. Interesting how the Unionist impulse overrode the desire among many Kentuckians to retain their slaves. Hardly the hard self interest one would expect.

    1. From my research, it appears that most pro-slavery Unionist Kentuckians felt the institution had a much greater chance of surviving (longer) within then Union than without. Much of that is likely due to their geographical location. If Kentucky were to leave the United States and join the Confederacy, their chances at reclaiming their human property was gone as the Fugitive Slave Act would be null and void. I’ve found plenty of evidence in period newspapers of southern Indiana captures who were turned over to Kentucky county authorities just across the Ohio River far into 1863. The Fugitive Slave Act was finally revoked in late June of 1864. I think this issue is yet an additional reason that many white Kentuckians developed a pro-Confederate identity following the war.

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