Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gen. McCook Asks What to do with Kentucky Runaways

In November 1861, long before the U.S. Army had developed an official plan on what to do with runaway slaves in Kentucky, Brigadier General Alexander McDowell McCook wrote from Camp Nevin, Kentucky (pictured above from Harper's Weekly) to his Department of the Cumberland commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, for advice on what to do with the blacks that flocked to his camp seeking freedom. 

To McCook these runaways were an annoyance and definite cause for concern in that in his thinking the slaves' fleeing may cause Kentucky to secede. But, the runaways were apparently a useful annoyance as he put promptly put them to work.

Camp Nevin Kentucky  November 5th 1861
General:  The subject of Contraband negros is one that is looked to, by the Citizens of Kentucky of vital importance   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 Green River–  They have already become a source of annoyance to me, and I have great reason to belive that this annoyance will increase the longer we stay–  They state the reasons of their running away–there masters are rank Secessionists, in some cases are in the rebel army–and that Slaves of union men are pressed into service to drive teams &&c
I would respectfully suggest that if they be allowed to remain here, that our cause in Kentucky may be injured–  I have no faith in Kentucky's loyalty, there-for have no great desire to protect her pet institution Slavery–  As a matter of policy, how would it do, for me to send for their master's and diliver the negro's–to them on the out-side of our lines, or send them to the other side of Green River and deliver them up–  What effect would it have on our cause south of the River–  I am satisfied they bolster themselves up, by making the uninformed believe that this is a war upon African slavery–  I merely make these suggestions, for I am very far from wishing these recreant masters in possession of any of their property–for I think slaves no better than horses in that respect–
I have put the negro's to work–  They will be handy with teams, and generally useful.  I consider the subject embarrassing and must defer to your better judgement
. . . .
The negros that came to me to day state that their master's had notified them to be ready to go south with them on Monday Morning, and they left Sunday night–
. . . .
A. McD. McCook

McCook image courtesy of Library of Congress


  1. General McCook's question reflects the political perspective of the issue of slavery. Rhe state of Kentucky was a neutral state throughout the Civil War (having not withdraw from the Union). Therefore Kentucky slaveholders were within their rights to hold slaves. However it is interesting to note that the profile of Kentucky slaveholders held relatively few slaves in contrast to the large plantations owners in the deep south. In many instances this slaveholder worked along side of his slaves. Having said this the slave markets in Louisville and Maysville were well known as centers for the sale of slaves 'down river'.

    Once again the issue of slavery remained a political issue. It is interesting to note that until the Emancipation Proclaimation President Lincoln held out hope thatstate which had left the union might return therefore delaying his ultimate decision to outlaw slavery in states which 'had joined the confederacy'.

    Kentucky as a state embodied a wide array of sentiment in regards to the issue of slavery.

    Submitted by Robert L.Sleet Lett, a descendent of Kentucky slavery

  2. Robert,
    Thanks for reading the post and leaving a comment. I'm not sure if you meant that Kentucky was officially neutral throughout the war or not. Kentucky did initially hold a neutral stance, but the legislature abandoned it in Sept. 1861 to declare for the Union.

    Kentucky slaveholders did hold fewer slaves than their counterparts in the Deep South. The average Kentucky owner held about 5 slaves.

    While Louisville and Maysville were active in the slave trade, Lexington was probably the most significant slave trading center in the state.

    I totally agree that Kentucky "embodied a wide array of sentiment" toward slavery.