Contraband of War: Runaway slaves and the Union Army

Look closely at this image. What is notable are the two servants. They are not in uniform but look to be wearing Union kersey blue trousers. The tents also suggest the three other men are officers as well as some of the equipage. Enlisted men would not have had privilege, pay, or baggage to have a table, chairs, and servants.

I am currently reading about the 21st Ohio Volunteers for my next novel and the man charged with writing the unit history describes a period of time where the regiment was on garrison duty in Alabama around the Huntsville area. It was quite common for them to shelter and retain contraband negroes as servants. An officer was given a ration allowance and expected to see to his own mess. Many a runaway slave was sheltered in the Union camps in this manner as officers and men alike saw it as their duty to both deprive the southern owners of the labor and to help a fellow human being out.

Captain Canfield of the 21st describes a point where near mutiny existed over the coddling of southern civilian slave owners and the forcible return of negroes being employed as servants. The history of the 21st Ohio can be found on Google Books for free.

History of the 21st Regiment, Canfield pg. 54-55

On the 23d a planter came near camp, and meeting Captain Canfield, said he heard his servant was in his (Canfield’s) camp, and asked the captain if he had any objection to his going to see. “Oh, no,” said the captain, “not in the least;” but seeing several groups of men casting significant glances toward the stranger , he added, “You will not consider me responsible for anything that happens.”

Hearing this the stranger turned back. Shortly after the Lieutenant Colonel’s orderly came with an order dated and directed to Captain Canfield, saying:

Negro boy Pat, in your company is the property of —-. You will deliver him outside of camp lines to his master. Signed J.M.Neibling, Lt. Col Comdg Rgt.

Captain Canfield wrote in answer, acknowledging the receipt of the order, and added “I respectfully decline to obey it,” signed it officially, as Captain Commanding Company, and kept a copy of the correspondence. Nothing further was said or done about this, however.

Matters were in this condition, when for the first time in two months I was detailed as officer of the day, a duty I should often have performed before. I received my order in the evening, and that night I made up my mind that when I went on duty the next morning, I would break up the slave trade in the regiment for twenty four hours at least; and my success surprised me. The county jail was full of prisoners, chiefly fugitive slaves, who were not turned over to me, but one of my sentinels was posted there, and I assumed whatever authority I lacked to investigate the resin of their detention. I knew very well there were no charges against these black men. After my guard was fully posted and every duty performed I took a non-commission officer and file of men for escort, and reported to Lieutenant Colonel Neibling for any orders he might be pleased to give me. I found him sitting in the shade of a public house near the depot, surrounded by a number of gentleman of the town. After informing me that there were no new orders for me, I was turning away to leave him, when he called out to me, “Where are you going with that guard?” to which I answered, “I am going down to release the prisoners int he jail, against whom there are no charges.” He answered me, “Sir, I order you not to do it.” I then said with deference of manner, “Colonel, will you be so good as to have charges preferred against them.” He replied in a towering rage its as none of my damned business, and that I should go to my quarters in arrest. Of course I obeyed the order of arrest, and quite crestfallen, went to my tent, followed by the boisterous laughter and jeers of Colonel Neibling’s companions, who were sitting about him and heard all that was said.

I had up to this time been considered a severe disciplinarian, and had incurred the displeasure of many officers and mend of the regiment on that account, and their judgement at first as, that I was served right. But before sundown hat day, all of the slaves were relieved by Colonel Neibling himself, and the regiment was in rebellion against its commanding officer, and my arrest was the pretext of the mutiny.

An interesting and oft unknown look into the inner workings of civil war Union regiments in the field.