Sunday, January 24, 2021

Union Camp Servants


On May 23, 1861, Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend, three enslaved men working on Confederate fortifications at Norfolk, Virginia, rowed a boat to Fort Monroe. They were seeking freedom. When their former owner heard reports that the men were at Union occupied Fort Monroe, he demanded their return under the Fugitive Slave Act. The fort’s commander, Gen. Benjamin Butler, refused to turn the men over. Butler cited Virginia’s present claim of independence from the United States as reason for not enforcing the law. In doing so, Butler devised the term “contraband” as a reference for African American refugees seeking freedom within Union lines.

As the Union army increasingly occupied parts of the Confederacy, thousands of enslaved people took great risks to gain their liberty. Historians estimate that over 500,000 individuals were ultimately successful. These migrations called the U.S. Congress to action. They passed the First Confiscation Act on August 6, 1861, and the Second Confiscation Act on July 17, 1862, to encourage the enslaved to run away, and thus damage the Confederacy’s manpower supply.

During the first couple of years of the war—until the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect—where an enslaved person fled to, and who commanded that area, made a huge difference on how the confiscation acts were enforced. In loyal slaveholding border states like Kentucky and Maryland, enslaved people were sometimes returned to owners staking claim. In other areas, like southeastern Virginia or coastal North and South Carolina, their chances of remaining with the Union army were much greater.

The Union army helped themselves to this new source of labor. They employed freed men, women, and children in various duties. They cooked, they did laundry, they drove wagons, they dug fortifications, they laid railroad track, they took care of horses and mules, and eventually, some enlisted as soldiers. Some worked as personal servants to Union officers.

Many primary sources such as photographs, mentions in white soldiers' letters, and army reports bear evidence to the service of camp servants. Some Union camp servants later enlisted in the United States Colored Troops. Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry ran away from his Kentucky owner and became a camp servant to a major in an Illinois regiment. When the opportunity to enlist came he took it and served gallantly. At the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina, Smith’s brave actions in saving the 55th Massachusetts flag earned distinction. In 2001, Smith’s descendants accepted the Medal of Honor in his behalf for his heroism.  

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