Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Gen. Palmer's General Orders 32 and Freedom

In reading Herbert Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery Freedom, 1750-1925, I was reminded of the significance of having freedom of movement in order to truly experience liberty. For African Americans in slavery, a restrictions on travel were leveled with the pass system. An owner issued pass was required to go from place to place. The same was sometimes the case during Union military occupation during the Civil War, especially early in the war.

However, Union Gen. John M. Palmer, overseeing the Department of Kentucky, headquartered in Louisville, issued General Orders 32 on May 11, 1865. Louisville at the time was becoming increasingly crowded with "contraband" refugees. Many ended up in the jails as runaways, while others gathered in camps trying to locate work and reunite their families and seeking security and protection. With the stated intent of preventing the spread of potential diseases and allowing those who had not found employment in the river city find it elsewhere, Palmer issued the order to provide freedom of movement.

" . . . .it is ordered that the Provost Marshal of the Post of Louisville, upon the application of any colored person who may report him or herself as unable to find sufficient employment in the City of Louisville, will issue a pass to such colored person and for his or her family, specifying the number of persons to be passed, and their names, and to the point to which they wish to go, to engage in or in search of employment."

While General Orders 32 did put some stipulations on travel as the old slave pass did, there were some obvious distinctions, too. First the order says "any colored person." Slave passes were not just given to any colored person. Second it says "to the point to which they wish to go." Slave passes only gave permission to where the master wished their slaves to go.

So, how were these people supposed to get to their desired locations? The order continued, "Conductors and managers of all railroads, steamboats, ferryboats, or other means of travel out to of the city of Louisville, will, upon the presentation of such pass and the payment of the usual fare, transfer the persons named therein." This was indeed revolutionary!

The order had some enforcement teeth to it, too. Any of the above conveyances who did not honor it "or shall refuse to transport any such person . . . will be arrested, and sent out of the Department or punished as a military court may adjudge."

As one might image this order was not well received by whites who were in shock at the speed at which slavery was ending in this Union loyal state. The order threw another log on the fire of fury that many white Kentuckians felt toward the Federal government, and the Union army that enforced its laws. Many Kentuckian's Unionist loyalty hinged on the state's ability to protect the institution. As slavery started to crumble so did Unionist sentiment. 

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