Lt. Col. William S. Pierson Hoffman’s Battalion was in a pickle. A group of new prisoners recently captured at the fall of Port Hudson had arrived at the prisoner-of-war processing center in New Sandusky, Ohio. The four officers, Col. I.G.W. Steedman (1st Alabama), Capt. R.M. Hewitt (Miles Legion), Capt. O.P. Amacker (9th Louisiana Batt. Cav.), and Lt. J.B. Wilson, (39th Mississippi), had brought along six servants, “four colored and two white, the latter small boys.” When the officers had surrendered, the six servants were permitted to accompany them. “Their journey had taken them from Port Hudson, to Governor’s Island in New York, and finally to the outskirts of Johnson’s Island. “Please give me such directions as you think proper,” Pierson asked Col. William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisoners in Washington, D.C., regarding the matter. (Official Records, Series 2, vol. 6, 397-398).
|Prisoners at Fort McHenry.|
The question that Pierson posed to his superior is an interesting one: just what was the policy of the Federal government regarding captured Confederate camp servants (both enslaved and free)? It is possible that the Federal government did not have a policy, as the question appeared several times. Louisville, Kentucky’s provost-marshal, Col. Henry Dent, asked the same question in December 1862: “Several slaves have been brought to the prison with their masters who were captured, said slaves having acted as cooks &c. I should like to know what shall be done with.” Dent realized he could not turn them loose. They would be arrested, jailed, and then sold for jail fees. Neither could he send them North, where “they are liable for their value by civil proceedings. Our people protest against their being let loose in our midst.” (Official Records, Series 2, vol. 5, 36)
An interesting clue is found in a letter from Col. Peter Porter, 8th New York Volunteer Artillery, stationed at Fort McHenry, written to Colonel Hoffman on October 6, 1863. Hoffman had obviously written to Porter on the matter, for Porter quotes Hoffman: “You state that Captured negroes are ranked as Camp followers, and therefore [are] Prisoners of War.” William Duane’s A Military Dictionary (1810) defines camp followers as “Officers servants, sutlers, &c. All followers of a camp are subject to the articles of war equally with the soldiery.” (164) All of the servants of officers, captured by the Federals, were considered prisoners of war. But what to do with them? Colonel Porter continues: “It is respectfully suggested that they be employed in the services of the Government as paid laborers and teamsters—thus rendering service to the Government, and avoiding the return of such as were slaves. It is further suggested that those among them who are freed men with families and desire to go should be sent south with the first installment of prisoners going thither—as exchanged prisoners or not as the Government thinks best.” (Peter A. Porter to William Hoffman, October 6, 1863, Letters Received from the Commissary General of Prisoners, Record Group 107, National Archives, quoted in James M. Paradis, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign, 60.)
To some degree, that appears to be what happened. Bvt, Brig. Gen. W.W. Morris, commanding Fort McHenry, wrote to Lt. Col. Wm H. Cheeseborough about the disposition of black prisoners. He had 64 “Negroes, Servants of Officers in the Rebel Armies” who had arrived at the fort since the battle of Gettysburg. According to Morris, 16 “had enlisted in the Negro Regt now in process of Organization in Balt[imore]—four… have been enlisted as Assist Cook in Co D 5th N.Y. Artillery, now at this post—four… left clandestinely with the 21st Reg-N.Y. I[nfantry]. National Guard, on its return to New York-, the balance, forty, are still here and chiefly employed in police duty.” So it would seem that soon after these black Confederate prisoners arrived in a prison camp, they took the Oath of Allegiance and were released. (W.W. Morris to Wm H. Cheeseborough, July 30, 1863, Letters Received from the Commissary General of Prisoners, Record Group 107, National Archives, quoted in James M. Paradis, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign, 59-60.)
However, there is some evidence that not all of these black Confederate prisoners were enthusiastic about taking the Oath of Allegiance. The Staunton Express, reprinting a piece published on October 13, 1863, told its readers that “The Petersburg Express is informed by Lieut. Daniels, who has just arrived at Petersburg from Fort Norfolk, that some 35 or 40 Southern negroes, captured at Gettysburg, are confined at Fort McHenry. He says that they profess an undying attachment to the South. Several times Gen. Schneck had offered to release them from the Fort, it they would take the oath of allegiance to the Federal Government and join the Lincoln army. They had peremptorily refused in every instance, and claim that they should be restored to their masters and homes in the South. They say they would prefer death to liberty on the terms proposed by Schneck.”
On the surface, it would be easy to dismiss the Staunton Express article as hyperbole. Yet there are accounts that support the idea of black Confederate prisoners refusing to take the Oath and gain their freedom. Lieutenant Robert Park, 12th Alabama Infantry, wrote in July 1864, while near Washington, D.C., that his “negro cook” Charlie was missing. Park believed he had been enticed to leave or “forcibly detained by some negro worshipper.” Yet Park discovered in December that Charlie was being held as a prisoner of war at Fort McHenry, refusing to take the oath. (Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 1, No. 5, 179, 379)
There are undoubtedly more black Confederate prisoners of war who refused to take the Oath and remained prisoners of war until the very end. Historians are largely silent on the issue. Since many of the prisoner of war register books have been digitized and are now online (through familysearch), we can uncover more of these stories.