Sunday, March 4, 2012

Union Camp Servants in Kentucky, Part II: The Curious Case of Adam

In the Library of Congress is a series of correspondence that involved a Kentucky runaway slave that became a camp servant for a Wisconsin regiment. While there were thousands of instances of runaways fleeing to the approaching Union armies during the Civil War, this particular instance involved a distinguished owner and ended up on President Abraham Lincoln's desk.

When Kentucky's neutrality ended in September 1861 and Union regiments descended from Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, one unit that was included was the 22nd Wisconsin. The 22nd was led by Colonel William Utley. Utley was born in Massachusetts and moved to Racine, Wisconsin in the 1840s. Utley dabbled in local politics, supported the Free Soil Party and then the Republican Party, due largely to its insistence on the non-extension of slavery. Utley was elected a state senator in 1861, and in 1862 he was commissioned colonel of the 22nd Wisconsin. While the 22nd was stationed in northern Kentucky in the fall of 1862 four runaways made their way to their camp. Utley was commanded by General Quincy Gilmore to return the slaves, named John, Abe, George, and Dock, as they were apparently owned by Kentucky Unionists (see letter above).

Utley wrote back to Gilmore that same day and explained that while he recognized Gilmore's authority in military matters, Utley did not think this instance pertained. He flatly refused to handover the contrabands and Gilmore surprisingly did not insist (see letter above). With this instance as precedence, Utley's stance against slavery was certainly strengthened.


Later that fall, Utley and the 22nd Wisconsin encamped in central Kentucky near Nicholasville. While there a small slave, some said a mulatto "dwarf," with an iron collar with spikes, made its way into the regiment's camp. The slave's collar was removed and he was given a job with one of the regiment's orderly sergeants. The slave's name was Adam and we was owned by Lexington, Kentucky resident George Robertson (pictured above). Utley naturally did not know who Robertson was, but most Kentuckians did. Robertson had had a distinguished career in Kentucky politics. He was a former chief justice of Kentucky, professor of law at Transylvania University and long time Whig member to the U.S. House of Representatives. Robertson had also served as the personal attorney for Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln when Mary's father Robert Todd passed away and his estate was settled.

Robertson had hired Adam out to an Irishman who had abused the slave. Adam had informed Robertson of this abuse, but Robertson apparently demanded he return to the Irishman leaser. Adam, fearing for his life, fled and landed in the 22nd Wisconsin's camp after spending a significant time hiding in the woods and living off of acorns. Robertson was a solid Whig Unionist, a personal friend of the late Henry Clay, but he, like Clay, believed that the constitution guarenteed him the right to his property. When Robertson learned of Adam's whereabouts, he attempted to recover the slave. Robertson rode out to the 22nd Wisconsin's camp in his carriage, with his slave coachman, and was flatly refused by Utley. Utley suggested that if Robertson wanted to try to take Adam he could; but at risk to his own personal safety. Robertson was told to leave and he was banned from the camp.

Robertson demanded satisfaction and believed the surest way was to contact President Lincoln. Robertson wrote Lincoln on November 19 and demanded the return of fugitive slaves of Kentucky Unionist owners, but he did not reference the Adam incident specifically. However, Lincoln knew Robertson was referring to Adam as Utley had also contacted the president a couple days earlier on November 17. Lincoln amazingly wrote back to Robertson on November 26 and offered him up to $500 for Adam and asked transfer of ownership to Utley, who could then free the slave to settle the matter once and for all (see letter above). Robertson had already filed civil and criminal complaints against Utley before contacting Lincoln, but nothing brought the return of his slave. On December 1, Robertson wrote in answer to the president and refused Lincoln's offer, as he believed he could get at least $1000 by suit.

Robertson would have to wait for his collection as the 22nd was soon ordered into Tennessee where Utley and a number of his command were captured by Confederates. Utley was eventually exchanged and in 1864 resigned his commission and returned to Wisconsin. Robertson doggedly continued the suit although slavery was outlawed at the end of 1865 with passage of the 13th amendment. Finally in 1871, through the courts, Robertson collected a little over $900 for his slave Adam who had fled almost a decade before. In 1874 Robertson died from complications due to an earlier stroke. Utley was able to laugh last as he was indemnified by the U.S. Treasury through the help of his personal attorney, Lincoln's former attorney general, and Kentuckian, James Speed.

For a fuller and excellently written article on the curious case of Adam see:

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