When Union troops moved into Kentucky and joined their Bluegrass state comrades in arms one of things they observed first-hand and commented on was slavery. For most of these soldiers, mainly from Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, their first experience with the institution came in this key border state.
As the Kentucky state legislature officially ended neutrality in September 1861, politicians and army officials made sure soldiers took a hands-off approach in relation to slaves, so as not to offend slaveholding Kentuckians, and potentially drive them into the Confederacy. The hand bill above, from Harrison County, Kentucky and dated September 28, 1861, bears evidence of this early war stance. It noted, "My soldiers will not interfere with peaceable and law abiding citizens. They will hold no conversation with your negroes, or suffer them to come within the lines of our encampment."
However, after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, things changed significantly. Although Kentucky was not officially subject to Lincoln's edict, Union soldiers, especially those from other states, took in large numbers of runaways and employed them for various camp duties.
In the letter above, from soldier James Magie of the 78th Illinois to his wife, wrote about a runaway in their camp. "We have a contraband in camp who makes us a great deal of fun. He is the greatest dancer I ever saw. He joins in our debates, and makes a right down [damn?] good speech. He is employed by the Colonel and works makes fires, works &c. He means to stay with us until the war is over and then go off to Illinois with us. He is a slave and ran away from Spencer County about 50 miles distant."
Historians have shown that many Union soldiers' attitudes toward slavery changed after making contact with the institution. Soldiers' letters bear out the fact that they hadn't really thought about slavery or what it did to a society in which it existed until they saw it first-hand. That is not to mean that the soldiers' attitudes toward African Americans always changed too. Most soldiers were for whatever would help end the war sooner, but that didn't necessarily mean they wanted African Americans to have the same social standing and political opportunities that whites enjoyed.
Images courtesy Kentucky Historical Society and Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.