- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

One of the unacknowledged goals of the Confederate invasion of the North in 1863 was to capture escaped slaves and send them back to the South. A consequence of this mission was the seizure of free blacks who were unable to evade the invading army. No evidence exists that this activity was official Confederate policy, but sufficient incidences occurred of blacks being caught during the invasion to indicate that it was at least an unofficial objective.
Southerners did not consider the capture of escaped slaves in the North to be unacceptable behavior. Under their system, slaves were chattel; therefore, in this view, the soldiers were merely recovering lost property.
Before secession, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legally permitted Southerners to lay hold of escaped slaves in the North. Events following the outbreak of war, however, changed the legal status of slaves. Congress passed the Confiscation Act soon after the Southern states seceded. It stipulated that "any property used in aiding or abetting insurrection against the United States were the lawful subject of prize and capture [and] they were to be forever free."
President Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 affected a broader segment of the slave population. It set free all persons held as slaves within any state in rebellion against the United States.
This may have influenced the Confederate high command not to issue formal directives regarding this activity. Based on the number of eyewitness accounts regarding the rounding up of blacks, however, it is evident that it had the leadership's approval.
The Confederates captured about 1,000 blacks at Winchester, Va., when the vanguard of Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces overran a Union garrison there on its way to invade the North. As they moved across the Potomac River into Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Confederates confiscated herds of cattle and wagonloads of foodstuffs from the surrounding farms and towns to feed their army and for shipment south. Those shipments also included unwilling human cargo whom the rebels seized with the aid of local sympathizers.
A reporter for the Charleston Mercury sent this dispatch from Hagerstown, Md., on June 27: "Yesterday I met several gangs of negros going to the rear who had been captured in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Many of the owners of these slaves [who had been following the Confederate army] had procured wagons and were carrying [them back] into Dixie."
The units primarily involved in this activity were cavalry, whose mobility better equipped them for it. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins' cavalry brigade was the vanguard of the Confederate army marching into Maryland and Pennsylvania. When Jenkins reached Chambersburg, Pa., he searched for blacks and caught a number escaping through the fields. Those who did not get away were tied together and marched back to the South. Local residents claimed that many never had been slaves or had long before been freed.
According to the memoirs of Confederate Lt. G.W. Beale, similar incidents occurred when a cavalry force commanded by Gen. J.E.B. Stuart captured a number of prisoners at Rockville. The lieutenant said that among the prisoners were a number of contrabands they recognized and claimed, and several free blacks.
A company of Confederate partisan rangers led by Capt. John H. McNeill, part of Gen. John Imboden's Independent Cavalry Command, conducted a search for escaped slaves in Mercersburg, Pa. They threatened to burn any house where a fugitive slave was hiding. A search produced a number of blacks who the rangers claimed were escaped slaves. Local residents, however, said that some had been born in Mercersburg.
On July 1, Maj. John S. Mosby's Confederate rangers came to Mercersburg to forage in the countryside. Some of the men who stayed in town became intoxicated and began robbing residences and looting stores. They also kidnapped a number of blacks who were not escaped slaves. When asked by a local judge whether it was their policy to take free blacks, they responded that it was their policy and threatened the judge for questioning them.
Another incident involved a rescue of a number of black women and children captured at Chambersburg. As they were taken through Greencastle, Pa., on their way to Virginia, townspeople overwhelmed the handful of soldiers guarding them and set the captives free. The leader of the detail threatened to have the town burned in retaliation, a threat that was not carried out.
In Gettysburg, many blacks escaped to eastern Pennsylvania when word of the invasion arrived. Several who stayed behind were captured and taken south, however. Not all members of the Southern invasion force condoned this behavior. A few officers who were awarded captured blacks for their personal use decided to release them.
A message from Gen. James Longstreet's headquarters to Gen. George Pickett on July 1 supports the conclusion that the capture of blacks had high-level approval. Pickett was directed to bring his division forward from the Chambersburg area across South Mountain toward Gettysburg. "The captured contrabands had better be brought along with you for further disposition," he was told.
If Longstreet, the army's second in command, was concerned about the disposition of captured blacks, it follows that Lee must have known about these actions as well. It would have been difficult not to know because the captives were herded south in plain view of the leaders who were traveling north with the army along the same roads.
The absence of an official order indicates that the Southern command, perhaps in recognition of the legal revisions regarding slavery, did not choose to publicly identify with this activity.
This may have been a consequence of the South's position that the political principle of secession was states' rights and not preservation of the institution of slavery. It was, however, inconsistent with the principle of states' rights to pursue blacks who were legally free in Northern states and place them into bondage.
Disparities such as this and whether the principle of secession was in fact states' rights or slavery are still debated.
What is not unresolved is that many blacks in the North lost their freedom as the result of the Confederate invasion in 1863.
Thomas J. Ryan, a writer from Bethany Beach, Del., is a frequent contributor to this page. He is a member of the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg and the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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