Wednesday, October 17, 2012
After a day and a half of shootouts and standoffs Colonel Robert E. Lee demanded the surrender of John Brown and his remaining raiders via Lieutenant James Ewell Brown Stuart.
On the morning of October 18, 1859, Stuart, who would become a dashing cavalry general under Lee in the Civil War, approached the barred door of the fire engine house at the Harpers Ferry armory. The door creaked and opened only a few inches. Inside, peering out at Stuart, was Old John Brown. Stuart had run into "Old Osawatomie Brown" during his stint serving in Bleeding Kansas. The lieutenant handed the old man Lee's demand for immediate surrender.
"Colonel Lee U.S.A. Comm. the troops send by the President of the U.S. to suppress the insurrection at this place; demands the surrender of the persons in the Armory buildings.
If they will peaceably surrender themselves & restore the pillaged property; they shall be kept in safety to await the orders of the President.
Col. Lee represents to them in all frankness that it is impossible for them to escape; that the Armory is surrounded on all sides by troops; & that if he is compelled to take them by force he cannot answer for their safety.
Brown refused the surrender demand.
Stuart gave the signal and the Marines rushed the fire engine house with sledge hammers. The hammers didn't work, so a heavy ladder was used to batter the door down.
It a very few minutes it was all over. Brown was wounded in the fight; a nasty gash in the head.
If the old man had been killed in the assault, history may have been much different. But, he didn't. He went to the gallows and died as a martyr in the eyes of many Northerners - and a heinous villain to most Southerners. The seeds of war were sown.
Image courtesy of the National Archives
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
After the shooting stopped, the dust settled and Brown and his men were captured, killed or put to flight, among the items found at the Maryland farmhouse Brown used to fine tune and launch his attack, were copies of his Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States.
Brown composed the document while a visitor in Frederick Douglass' Rochester, New York home in 1858. His goal in writing the laws of his utopia was a society where blacks and whites were equal before the law. The document's preamble bears this out.
"Whereas, slavery throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than the most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion, the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination; in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence: Therefore
We the Citizens of the United States, and oppressed people, who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court [Dred Scott Decision] are declared to have no rights which the White Man is bound to respect; together with all of the people degraded by the laws thereof, Do, for the time being ordain and establish ourselves the following Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, the better to protect our Persons, Property, Lives, and Liberties; and to govern our actions:
Qualifications for membershipAll persons of mature age, whether Proscribed, oppressed, and enslaved Citizens, or of the Proscribed and oppressed races of the United States, who shall agree to sustain and enforce the Provisional Constitution and Ordinance of this organization, together with all minor children of such persons, shall be held to be fully entitled to protection under the same."
And, while Brown's constitution was racially radical for the time, it was also subjective in regard to his views on moral behavior. One later article states, "Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, or indecent exposure of the person, or intoxication, or quarreling shall not be allowed or tolerated; neither unlawful intercourse of the sexes."
To read Brown's constitution in full check out the following link to it at the National Archives:
John Brown's Constitution
Monday, October 15, 2012
I found the above picture of African American workers spreading out hemp in a Kentucky field for the crop to dew rot. Once cut and shocked, hemp was spread on the ground to collect dew which naturally rotted the stalk. The stalks were finally collected together and broken to get the fibers inside.
This image was taken in 1896 for a report on hemp and jute culture in the United States by the federal government.
Image courtesy the Filson Historical Society.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
As we approach election time I thought I'd post a short article that shows that nasty campaigns, and charges of election fraud, violence, and disfranchisement are nothing new. This short notice was printed in the November 11, 1870 edition of the Lexington Daily Press.
The 1870 election was particularly contentious in Kentucky. It was the first opportunity for African American men to vote since the Fifteenth Amendment was passed (February 1870). Not only was there violence by white Democrats in attempt to keep African American Republicans from casting their votes, but apparently intraracial violence occurred too when those of one's race did not vote as they were expected.
The notice read:
"Robert Harris, colored, who voted the Democratic ticket, and worked at Scott's [hemp] factory, lost his place as hackler, besides was rather roughly handled, and cut by negroes at that factory. This mode of treating those of the colored people who vote their principles is rather a dangerous business and intolerable in a community like ours."
Saturday, October 13, 2012
The year following the Civil War the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed by Congress. Its provisions were added to the Constitution two years later in the form of the Fourteenth Amendment. This vital change to the laws of our land included in its first section the provision that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of Citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; or deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Kentucky, a proslavery and loyal border state during the Civil War, resisted to the bitter end the demise of slavery. The state rejected to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery, but was still naturally subject to that law, however, that didn't mean they were ready to accept it. Similarly, Kentuckians rejected the Fourteenth Amendment and the later Fifteenth Amendment, which allowed African American men to vote.
Kentuckians' conservative hesitancy to embrace these amendments, which they viewed as being radical, came through in a newspaper article I recently came across. On October 18, 1870, the Lexington Daily Press printed a story under the headline - "Negro Testimony --- A Test Case."
Since the end of the Civil War Kentucky's African American's had pressed for the necessity to testify in court cases. They correctly believed that there was no way they could receive any sense of justice for the atrocities that were committed on them in the Reconstruction years if they could not provide testimony against their attackers.
This article read:
"The grand jury of the United States Circuit Court yesterday returned an indictment against Hop Price, Judge of the Louisville City Court, for refusing to receive the testimony of a negro against a white man, who had been arrested upon the charge of assault and battery on the negro. The laws of the Commonwealth conflict with the [Fourteenth] amendment to the Constitution of the United States relative to negro testimony, and Judge Price, conceiving it his duty to support the Constitution of Kentucky in preference to all other laws rendered his decision in accordance therewith. The punishment for the offense is a fine not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both, at the discretion of the court."
I found a short followup article in an issue a few days later that this case was to be tried on November 9, 1870, but when I tried to find out what happened I couldn't locate the court's decision in this particular newspaper.
Friday, October 12, 2012
Extra edition number 52, published by the New York Tribune in September 1879, was titled "Bourbon Ballads: Songs for the Stump."
As the paper said the special edition "contains nearly all of those humorous political songs which have been written for the Tribune by Mr. William A. Croffut, under the general title 'Bourbon Ballads.' These poems have been copied by the Republican press of the country and their flavor is pretty well known. Nearly all of them are written from what is assumed to be the Democratic point of view, but members of that party will perhaps hesitate to adopt the utterances as their own."
The reason the Democrats probably wouldn't have used them was because they were largely satirical. The "Bourbon" in the title is a reference to the Southern states that returned to local control after Recosntruction officially ended in 1877, and is taken from the Bourbons of France who returned to power following the First French Empire under Napoleon.
One of these "Ballads" caught my attention for its references to Kentucky and apparently the Exoduster Movement of African Americans to Kansas in the late 1870s to seek opportunities. It is titled -
THE AUCTION-BLOCK AGAIN - WHO BIDS?
Who bids? Again for the blacks are up at auction!
The man and babe and mother - who's the bidder?
Peremptory - without regard to section -
Impartial - 'tis our purpose to consider
With favor the first guaranty that comes,
Of fair play, freedom, peace and happy homes!
Ah Gentlemen! This is a happy session!
Come Mississippi, Kansas and Kentucky,
Now speak up! Give us lively competition;
The buyer of this labor will be lucky!
Bid sharp! This is your crisis of your fate,
For work is wealth and underlies the State.
I bid - a home for every pickaninny
Whose dad or mam'll earn it by their workin';
O, fer the times we had in Ole Virginny,
Wen nigs was nigs an' white folks did the shirkin'!
I'm good at shirkin', an I can't agree
Thet any nigger is ez good as me!
You hear the bid - who goes a triffle better?
Who guarantees the ballot? Who proposes
To have the spelling book replace the fetter,
And wreathe this rugged auction-block with roses?
Who offers to protect the rights of men,
And turn the slave into a citizen?
I'll make 'em free! The mandate of the Maker!
Men serve themselves the best, it stands to reason;
And land that's $5 by the acre
I'll rent 'em for $10 by the season.
I'll let 'em vote. If rifle clubs use force
And say they sha'n't, why, then they can't, of course.
Too late by far! You promise no protection!
To make the free - but merely free to suffer;
A voice rings hither from another section;
Your bid is beaten by another offer!
Now raise it Mississip, or you are flat;
I hear a dozen bids as good as that!
I bid! - a home for every man and woman,
A school for every child: - a field to labor;
The guaranty of every right that's human;
Respect that sees in every man's neighbor;
The richest soil a farmer ever saw,
And equal rights for all before the law!
Do I hear more? This is a happy session;
Come, rally, Mississippi and Kentucky!
One! Two! Now going! Is there competition?
Just going! O, the buyer will be lucky!
Going! From where the torrid fever tans us -
Last call! A-going! - going! - gone! - to Kansas!
To see this edition the Library of Congress American Memory website click here.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
In September 1864, a grand jury in Union held Memphis indicted a number of the town's men including Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The idictment read in part:
". . .that Nathan Bedford Forrest, late of the said district being an inhabitant of and resident within the United States of America and owing allegiance and fidelity to the said United States of America, well knowing the promise but not weighing it regarding the duty of his allegiance and fidelity . . . was a traitor . . . withdrew the allegiance and fidelity and obedience which every citizen of the United States of America ought to bear toward his Government . . . by conspiring, contriving and intending by all the means in his power to aid and assist . . . the said Confederate States of America by the prosecution of said rebellion, insurrection and war, to wit:
On April 21, 1864, and divers other days and times before as well as after that day at the county of Shelby within the jurisdiction of this court . . . wickedly devising and invading the peace and tranquility of the United States of America to disturb and to stir, move, excite, aid and assist in the rebellion . . . with force and arms unlawfully, falsely, maliciously, and traitorously did raise and levy war . . . and the said Nathan B. Forrest on August 21, 1864 at the County of Shelby with a great multitude of persons . . . [did] arm and arrange and appear in a war like manner, that is to say with guns, swords, pistols and other war like weapons . . . contrary to the form of the Statutes in such cases and against the peace and dignity of the United States of America." (Quoted from Brian Steel Wills, A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest)
Apparently, little came of this indictment at the time as the war was on. But, as the above writ of habeas corpus indicates, Forrest was again indicted for treason in September 1865 by Salmon Chase, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
In the spring of 1866 Forrest appeared before the Memphis court in regard to the 1864 indictment and posted a $10,000 bond. Although he prepared for the case and had to again post the bond amount the following fall, the trial never took place.
It appears, too, that the September 1865 treason charge went without arrest and trial. The U.S. marshal who was to arrest Forrest responded - probably wisely - that "Defendant not to be found in my district."
Although Forrest did not end up in a Memphis court for treason, he did end up in court in Coahoma County, Mississippi in 1866 for killing a freedman worker with an ax on his plantation after an argument arose apparently because the freedman was abusing his wife in the quarters. In October 1866, Forrest was acquitted of manslaughter by the court's jury.
Image courtesy of the National Archives.
Monday, October 8, 2012
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, I would like to share a private soldier's comments on the fight. These words come from Sam Watkins of Columbia, Tennessee, who was a member of Company H, 1st Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and it truly expresses how hard fought this too often overlooked clash was.
"In giving a description of this most memorable battle, I do not pretend to give you figures, and describe how this general looked and how that one spoke, and the other on charged with drawn sabre, etc. I know nothing of these things - see the history for that. I was simply a soldier of the line, and I only write of the things I saw, I was in every battle, skirmish and march that was made by the First Tennessee Regiment during the war, and I do not remember of a harder contest and more evenly fought battle than that of Perryville. If it had been two men wrestling, it would have been called a 'dog fall." Both sides claim the victory - both sides whipped."
A little later in his narrative Watkins continued, "The battle now opened in earnest, and from one end of the line to the other seemed to be a solid sheet of blazing smoke and fire. Our regiment crossed a stream, being preceded by Wharton's Texas Rangers, and we were ordered to attack at once with vigor. Here General Maney's horse was shot. From this moment the battle was a mortal struggle. Two lines of battle confronted us. We killed almost every one in the first line, and were soon charging over the second, when right in our immediate front was their third and main line of battle from which four Napoleon guns poured their deadly fire.
We did not recoil, but our line was fairly hurled back by the leaden hail that was poured into our very faces. Eight color-bearers were killed at one discharge of their cannon. We were right up among the very wheels of their Napoleon guns, and we were soon in a hand-to-hand fight - every man for himself - using the butts of our guns and bayonets. One side would waver and fall back a few yards, and would rally, when the other side would fall back, leaving the four Napoleon guns; and yet the battle raged. Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since. The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar. The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces. The very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire which seemed the very pit of hell, peopled by contending demons.
Our men were dead and dying right in the very midst of this grand havoc of battle. It was a life and death to death grapple. The sun was poised above us, a great red ball striking slowly in the west, yet the scene of battle and carnage continued."
The horror that was Civil War combat had to have been truly terrible. Still, these men seemingly thought their lives were worth sacrificing for their respective causes; something difficult for most of us who are not in our nation's military service have a difficult time imagining. For them, their families and their willingness to defend our rights, I give thanks.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Although Kentucky's legally elected legislature stood by the Union, and their congressmen remained in Washington D.C., the divided state also had a Confederate provisional government that sent representatives to Richmond.
The above item is the credentials for those men appointed to the Confederate House of Representatives who were named on December 14, 1861. The Kentucky Confederate state government first met in Russellville in October 1861. Later Bowling Green was established as the state's Confederate capital city.
In late November this Confederate state government, which had delegates from only 68 of the states 100 counties, petitioned to be admitted to the Confederacy and were formally admitted on December 10, 1861. The men named on the document above were designated as representatives four days later.
The Kentucky Confederate government remained in Bowling Green until General Ulysses S. Grant's twin military successes to the west at Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862. As Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston retreated from Kentucky into Tennessee, the Kentucky Confederate government had to follow by necessity. Kentucky Confederate governor George W. Johnson was present when the armies fought at the Battle of Shiloh in April, where he was wounded and died. Richard Hawes was named as Johnson's successor and was actually inaugurated as the provisional governor of the state when the Confederates captured the state capital of Frankfort in the fall of 1862. But, his stay in the state was short as the Rebels were forced to flee the city the same day Hawes was sworn in. After the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862, the Confederates retreated from the state and did not return as an organized force.
Image courtesy of the National Archives
Saturday, October 6, 2012
With the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau in the spring of 1865 a concerted effort was put in place to attempt to alleviate some of the suffering Unfortunately, the problem was larger than the resources committed to solve it.
As freed slaves hit the road to experience freedom, find relatives that were sold in previous years, or to search for jobs, they unexpectedly experienced suffering, and inadvertently contracted and spread diseases. Unhealthy conditions such as living in crowded, leaky, dirty tents led to afflictions such as small pox, yellow fever, typhoid, and measles, which plagued efforts to make new lives. In Sick From Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, historian Jim Downs digs into the records of the Medical Division of the Freedmen's Bureau to tell this unpleasant but important story.
Downs contends that much of the effort and expense put into the Medical Division was made to keep a healthy workforce in the Southern states on the abandoned farms and plantations that the federal government confiscated, and for black soldiers that were enlisted in the Union army. Women, children, the elderly, and disabled were too frequently of secondary consideration.
The level of disease experienced by the freed people was unexpected by both they and the government. Downs explains that freedmen hospitals were established in the former slave states, but that they usually popped up in response to an outbreak or epidemic. Most of the freedmen hospitals were very inefficient in operation and lacked success. One of the terrible epidemics experienced by freed people was small pox. The outbreak was wrongly perceived by many as problem unique to the African American former slaves and thus the treatment became understood in terms of race - that blacks were more susceptible than whites - and therefore treatment was not administered as it should have been.
Of special interest was the epilogue in Sick From Freedom. Here, Down's explains that Reconstruction's heath measures were often applied to American Indians in the West, who experienced many of the same problems with disease when placed in reservations.
A few irritating error were noticed in the text. When Downs covered a particularly heartbreaking instance that happened at Camp Nelson in Kentucky he incorrectly named the camp commander as Pry instead of Fry. It was incorrect in more than one place and also in the index. Downs also wrote "When soldiers in the North reached for the rifles that hung above the mantles of their front doors and marched off to war, they did so in the name of ending slavery." I would argue that ending slavery was far from being a representative motivation for Union soldiers, especially early in the war. Most Northern soldiers fought for preserving the Union, not freeing slaves. Additionally, most did not take their rifles off their mantles - Union soldiers were well armed by the federal government and fought with standardized rifled muskets, not their own from home.
Despite the above mentioned minor quibbles, I enjoyed reading Sick From Freedom. It is a sad story of the Civil War and Reconstruction that more people need to know and understand. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.
Friday, October 5, 2012
Thursday, October 4, 2012
While looking for some information on the two earlier posts I made about the Patent Office (pictured) not issuing patents to slaves, I ran across a list that showed the number of patents issued per state or territory in 1858. I think it would be more informative to have a list of patent applications per state, but a list of those actually issued can be productive too for comparative purposes.
There were 5,364 applications made in 1858, and of those, 3,668 were actually issued patents. The breakdown is as follows:
NY - 1,075
PA - 447
MA - 438
OH - 302
CT - 211
NJ - 126
MD - 82
IN - 82
VA - 61
ME - 58
MI - 54
DC - 52
NH - 51
RI - 48
MO - 46
VT - 42
LA - 34
IA - 33
MS - 31
KY - 30
AL - 24
CA - 23
NC - 22
GA - 21
TN - 19
SC - 12
TX - 10
DE - 8
FL - 8
WA Territory - 4
AR - 3
MN - 2
KS Territory - 1
US Navy - 2
US Army - 1
Just looking at the list is clearly obvious that most of the patents issued in 1858 were to inventors in Northern states. That is probably not all that surprising considering that most of the nation's industrial capacity was in those states.
Broken down per section it looks like this:
Free States = 88% of the total issued
Slave States & DC = 12% of the total issued
But, does industrial output equal inventiveness? I'm not sure, but I would probably argue that a free labor system encouraged inventiveness more than a slave labor system.
The same report that offered the state figure breakdown also indicated that the category that received the most number of patents issued (1198) were for products associated with railroads. The North certainly had the greatest amount of mileage in railroads. The next most numerous category was agricultural implements and processes (561). Both the North and South in 1858 were overwhelmingly rural and depended on heavily on farming, so in my thinking, neither section would have had an advantage in that particular category.
What would be interesting would be to compare the free population percentages (since slaves couldn't receive patents) of both sections to the percentages of patents issued to the sections. Maybe I can do that with some research from the closest census (1860) in a future post.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
This petition to Congress is from 106 members of the Union Fire Company No.1 from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, presumed to be the oldest volunteer Fire Company in the United States. The petition, inscribed on a watercolor of the American Flag, was received by Congress on February 6, 1861, when concerns over Southern secession were still balanced with hopes of preserving the Union and averting war. In the petition, the Company asked Congress to pass the Crittenden Compromise (or a similar measure) to preserve the Union. The volunteer firemen noted, "where the fiercest flames threatened the greatest destruction, they never stopped to inquire the cause, but rushed to use their best efforts to subdue the devouring element." They hoped that Congress would also find a way for the nation to avoid the flames of civil war.
Image and text courtesy the National Archives
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
In my last post I had many questions about the primary source I shared. Little did I know that almost all of those questions were answered some 30 years ago. It was brought to my attention by a kind reader that there was quite a bit of scholarship in this specific incident that was available online.
One of these articles was published in the Spring 1980 issue of Prologue magazine, which has been offered by the National Archives for the past 40 years. This article, written by Norman O. Forness, fully explains the slave patent situation.
I quickly realized the letter I shared yesterday had some errors or misinterpretations. That letter referenced a Stewart, who turned out to be planter Colonel Oscar J. E. Stuart a prominent lawyer from Pike County, Mississippi. In 1857 Stuart had written to fellow Mississippian Jacob Thompson, the Secretary of the Interior (pictured above), asking about the possibility of getting a patent for a special plow that Ned, one of his slaves, had invented. Other documents at the National Archives indicate that Stuart understood and acknowledged that the patent laws required that to receive a patent the inventor had to swear that he had conceived the idea. Since Ned had invented the plow, Stuart could not do this honorably. Stuart argued that since he owned Ned, he also owned Ned's labor and ideas. Stuart therefore wanted the patent issued to himself "as master of the slave-inventor."
Thompson was head of the Department of the Interior, which included Patent Office branch. He referred Stuart's letter to Attorney General Jeremiah Black who did not respond immediately. Thompson responded to Stuart that a patent application had be filed before a ruling could be made.
Stuart filed an official application which reached Commissioner of Patents and Kentuckian Joseph Holt (pictured above in middle). Holt basically rejected the application since the inventor, Ned, could not swear an affidavit that he had invented the plow as Ned was a slave and therefore not a citizen. Stuart was disgruntled and thinking he could get more done through fellow Mississippian Thompson, attempted to go over Holt's head. Thompson referred the matter to Attorney General Black, who after a long delay eventually made the ruling shown in the letter shared in yesterday's post.
Naturally, Stuart was not pleased with the final ruling and attempted to get the patent legislation changed via his Mississippi representatives, however when that didn't work either, Stuart began making the slave invented plows without a patent and selling them for $40.00 each.
Another article, this one published in The Journal of Negro History in the Winter edition of 1984 (pages 48-52, accessible on JSTOR) provides even more documentation on this fascinating case. Included in this article was the letter that Stuart wrote to Senator John A. Quitman, a former governor of Mississippi and filibuster organizer, attempting to get the patent law changed. This letter describes Ned's plow and how it works.
Also intriguing is an endorsement letter by another former Mississippi governor Albert G. Brown. Brown touted the superiority of the slave invented plow over its nearest competitors. He closed his glowing recommendation for the product by stating "I am glad to know that your implement is the invention of a negro slave - thus giving the lie to the abolitionist cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the negro. When did a free negro invent anything?"
Even more documentation on Stuart is held at Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the Stuart Family Papers. Their description of the papers indicate that two of Stuart's son's died fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War and that Stuart moved to Kentucky in 1871 to "escape the excesses of Reconstruction in Mississippi."
I am so happy to find out this information and to be able to share it here. Thanks Mom!
Images courtesy of the Library of Congress
Monday, October 1, 2012
While browsing through some digitized documents on the National Archives website yesterday, I came across the above letter.
I still don't quite know what to make of it, and I wish there had been other accompanying documents to help enlighten us about the situation, and help contextualize and corroborate, but alas, we have only what we have.
The letter reads as follows:
Attorney General's Office
June 10, 1858
I fully concur with the Commissioner of Patents in the opinion he has given on the application of W. O. J. E. Stewart of Mississippi. For the reasons given by the Commissioner, I think as he does, that a machine invented by a slave, though it be new and useful, cannot, in the present state of the law, be patented. I may add that, if such a patent were issued to the Master, it would not protect him in the courts against persons who might infringe it.
J. S. Black
In "sourcing" this document the first thing that strikes me is the date, especially as it relates to what information the letter contains. The Dred Scott Decision, which basically said that African Americans were not citizens and therefore did not have rights, was handed down by the Supreme Court the year before this letter was written. So, it makes sense that a patent wouldn't be issued to slave.
Continuing sourcing, I would be interested in finding out more about J.S. Black. Where he was from and his politics would be of particular interest. A quick search shows that Jeremiah S. Black was President James Buchanan's Attorney General from 1857-1860 and then the president's Secretary of State from 1860 to 1861. He was also a conservative from Pennsylvania that opposed Congressional Reconstruction after the Civil War. Being attorney general, Black was well aware of the Dred Scott Decision, and based on his post war sentiments, probably fully agreed fully with that ruling.
I would like to know who W. O. J. E. Stewart is. Is he the master of the slave mentioned at the end of the letter? I doubt that Stewart is the slave who produced the invention. I think probably the master made application on behalf of his slave. But, what was this invention that was "new and useful?"
The last sentence of the letter is especially confusing. When it says ". . . it would not protect him in the courts against persons who might infringe it," does "him" mean Stewart of the slave inventor? Surely it must mean Stewart, but the way it is written I'm not certain.
Maybe a little more searching at the National Archives would answer some of these questions; regardless, it is an intriguing letter that gives us some - although limited - insight into race and society in 1858.