Were Free Negroes Enslaved to Confederate Service?

From a claim made to the Southern Claims Commission by Exum White, a free “colored” man of Nansemond County, Virginia, the following statement:

“White was a colored man.  The Magistrate of Nansemond Co. in Jany ’62 sentenced him & 100 other colored men to work on the rebel works on railroad near Manassas for 60 days worked by compulsion and got no pay, taken sick & sent home on sick leave. He afterwards worked for the Union army on works around Suffolk for 2 or 3 months. Daniel White and Benjamin Turner attest his loyalty which we find proven.”

Is it possible that 101 free negro men were guilty of crimes that warranted sentencing at the same time?  Was the magistrate at Nansemond technically enslaving free negroes to perform work on behalf of the Confederate military?

This is likely nothing new to historians, but it’s the first time I’ve read that “free” people were used in this way by southern courts.

From Wikipedia –

The Southern Claims Commission (SCC) was an organization of the executive branch of the United States government from 1871-1873 under President Ulysses S. Grant. Its purpose was to allow Union sympathizers who had lived in the Southern states during the American Civil War, 1861–1865, to apply for reimbursements for property losses due to U.S. Army confiscations during the war.

City Mourns Lincoln

Alexandria Gazette, Volume 66, Number 89, 20 April 1865

Local News

Large numbers of our citizens attended the funeral of President Lincoln, yesterday.  All business in this place was entirely suspended, and the whole city clothed in mourning — Minute guns were fired throughout the day, at the batteries and forts in and around this place, and the bells were tolled at intervals.  Everything wore an air of deep sorrow.

Dates of Secession – Confederate States

Dates of Secession

South Carolina: December 20, 1860

Mississippi: January 9, 1861

Florida: January 10, 1861

Alabama: January 11, 1861

Georgia: January 19, 1861

Louisiana: January 26, 1861

Texas: February 1, 1861

Virginia: April 17, 1861

Arkansas: May 6, 1861

North Carolina: May 20, 1861

Tennessee: June 8, 1861

Kentucky: Ordinance passed by people in 1861

Missouri: Ordinance passed, but not presented to people

An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Alexandria Gazette, Volume 63, Number 168, 5 July 1862

Senator Hale [John P. Hale of New Hampshire] in answering a remark of Mr. Sumner [Charles Sumner of Massachusetts], reflecting upon his refusal to vote aye upon an amendment making Negro testimony admissible, said that he had long labored for that object, but that if incorporated in a law it would be rendered nugatory by the present Supreme Court, and he therefore regarded such action as utterly futile. He preferred to abolish the Court altogether.

Arming of Fugitive Slaves

Alexandria Gazette, Volume 63, Number 167, 3 July 1862

Armed and ready to protect the Union.

Gen. Hunter, of the Department of S.C., has written a letter to the Secretary of War, in reply to the inquiry concerning the equipment, arming, &c.,  of fugitive slaves, in which he says, that he was authorized by Secretary Cameron to employ all persons, without distinction of color, for the suppression of rebellion; that the regiment of negroes organized are not “fugitives,” but their late masters are “fugitives,” and he concludes as follows – “The experiment of arming the blacks, as far as I have made it has been a complete and even marvelous success. They are sober, docile, attentive and enthusiastic, displaying great natural capacities for acquiring the duties of the soldier.  They are eager beyond all things to take the field and be led into action; and it is the unanimous opinion of the officers who have charge of them, that in the peculiarities of this climate and country they will prove invaluable auxiliaries — fully equal to the similar regiments so long and successfully used by the British authorities in the West India Islands.  In conclusion, I would say it is my hope, there appearing no possibility of other reinforcements, owing to the exigencies of the campaign in the Peninsula, to have organized by the end of next fall, and be able to present to the Government from forty-eight to fifty thousand of these hardy and devoted soldiers.”

Confederates Use Blacks as Human Shields

It seems that all the ‘Contrabands’ in South Carolina are not as loyal as Wilson Small and his associates. A correspondent of one of the Northern papers recites the following incident as a trait of manners developed by the war in South Carolina. A small detachment of confederates crossed Broad river at night at Port Royal ferry in a large flat, adopting a very clever expedient to prevent discovery until the proper time. They placed a number of contrabands in the front of the scow and obliged them to pull them across, while they lay out of sight of our pickets in the boat. The boat was discovered by the pickets, hailed, and allowed to approach the shore, as the negroes answered that they were “niggers on the way to freedom — press de Lord for dat Massa.” The pickets did not discover the ruse until they had received a hot fire from the Confederates, who rose at the command and fired over the negroes’ heads. The fire was feebly returned, and the pickets fell back and continued to fall back until they had arrived at a safe distance. — Nat. Int.

Colyer: Lincoln Adamant Against Returning Fugitive Slaves

Vincent Colyer

Alexandria Gazette, Volume 63, Number 150, 13 June 1862

Mr. Vincent Colyer, in his address at the Cooper Institute at N.Y. , on Tuesday night, said, he had seen the President , and spoke as follows: “The President said that the idea of closing schools and sending back fugitive slaves, and searching vehicles going north, never had emanated from his administration. Such an order had never been given by him, nor would it be tolerated by him or his administration. He said more than that. He said no fugitive slave who came within the lines of the United States army should ever be returned to his master.”


According to Wikipedia, Vincent Colyer was an American artist noted for his images of the American west.  During the Civil War, Colyer created the United States Christian Commission, and worked with the federal government to try to help freedmen and Native Americans.

As superintendent of the poor in New BernNorth Carolina under General Ambrose Burnside, he wrote the Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United States Army in North Carolina, in the Spring of 1862, After the Battle of Newbern (1864). With the government decision in 1863 to allow black troops to fight, Colyer began to recruit and train the men for the United States Colored Troops. He also served with the Indian commission.

Lincoln’s Letter to Colonel Ellsworth’s Parents

Colonel Ellsworth

To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:

My dear Sir and Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction —

A. Lincoln

Longworth Feeds Confederate Families

Alexandria Gazette, Volume 63, Number 155, 19 June 1862

“It is stated that Nicholas Longworth [Longworth House Office Building used by the U.S. House of Representatives is named for him], the Cincinnati millionaire, has contributed $500 to feed the families of Confederate soldiers at the South.”


Longworth later married the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, and became Speaker of the House of Representatives.