Escaped Slaves are Not Free; Gathering Rebels in Missouri

August 8, 1861

Nearly in a panic over how to handle the slaves escaping into his lines near Fortress Monroe, on the Virginia Peninsula, General Benjamin Butler wrote to the United States Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, for guidance. Since that time, the legislature had passed the Confiscation Act, which was vague and didn’t quite give the former slaves their freedom. On this date, Secretary Cameron replied to Butler.

Cameron had consulted the President on the matter. Lincoln held that the Fugitive Slave Laws, requiring slaves to be returned to their masters, were null and void in states that were taking up arms against the Federal Government. The reason, thought Lincoln, was that the Fugitive Slave Laws required the cooperation of Federal and State authorities. The States in insurrection were clearly not cooperating and so it was impossible to enforce the statutes.

The quandary of the former slaves’ freedom was nearly answered. When the question of escaped slaves of masters loyal to the Union was addressed, Lincoln, through Cameron, concluded that it was “quite clear that the substantial rights of loyal masters will be best protected by receiving such fugitives, as well as fugitives from disloyal masters, into the service of the United States, and employing them under such organizations and in such occupations as circumstances may suggest or require.”

Basically, if loyal masters were truly loyal to the Union, they wouldn’t mind if Lincoln borrowed their slaves for a bit.

The escaped slaves were not, then, free, but were forced to be under the employ of the United States government. After the war, wrote Cameron, “Congress will, doubtless, properly provide for all the persons thus received into the service of the Union, and for just compensation to loyal masters.”

Butler was also instructed not to interfere with the slaves of peaceful masters. Nor was he allowed to encourage slaves to leave their owners.1

The questions involving the legality of escaped slaves were more or less resolved. The logistics concerning where to put them all, however, were another matter.

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The Rebels Learn of their Advantage in Missouri

In Missouri, Confederate forces under General Ben McCulloch pursued the Union troops under General Nathaniel Lyon, as they pulled back to the safety of Springfield. Lyon and his men had confronted the Rebels in a running skirmish but, upon realizing they might just be out-gunned, returned to their camps. The Confederates, however, had massed at Wilson’s Creek, ten miles southwest of the city.

Missouri General Sterling Price wished to attack immediately. McCulloch, however, wanted first to gain more information. Lyon had locked down Springfield, allowing none of its citizenry to leave its limits. He wanted no word of his smaller numbers to be leaked to the larger Confederate force. General Price, in command of the Missouri State Guards, which made up about half of the 12,000 Rebels, had sent out scouts and spies to discern the Union strength, objective and position.

For the past two days, no word was received and McCulloch grew impatient. On this date, however, two ladies, secretly loyal to the Confederate cause, obtained Lyon’s permission to leave the city. They immediately found their way to Price’s headquarters and spilled all they knew.

General Lyon, said the ladies, was perplexed. He was expecting an attack at any moment and kept his weary men under arms at all times. He was even contemplating abandoning Springfield, they added.

Price was elated. This new information, he felt, made it certain that McCulloch would attack. He bolted to the Confederate commander’s headquarters, excitedly told him the news and held his breath for what he was sure would be the order to prepare for battle. Instead, McCulloch just sat there blankly and said nothing.

Frustrated, Price pressed him for a reply. McCulloch was still not convinced an attack was worth it. He would have to think on it a bit, he told Price, vaguely assuring him that he’d get an answer later in the evening.

McCullogh seemed to not fully trust the report of the two Springfield ladies. He wanted to see matters for himself. With an armed escort, he rode north towards the Union lines. That evening, through another cavalry detachment, McCulloch learned that Lyon’s forces were much smaller than he imagined. In fact, the Confederates outnumbered the Union troops nearly two to one.

Rather than report this to Price, as he said he would, McCulloch turned in for the night. Price’s frustration turned to anger, but there was little he could do.2

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Certain Trouble in Almost Heaven

Over the past two days, General Robert E. Lee had received messages from General Henry Wise, commanding his “legion” of Confederates in western Virginia. Wise had evacuated the Kanawha Valley and was now encamped at White Sulphur Springs. His rival, Confederate General Floyd, had brought up his own command and wanted to retake the ground given up by Wise. The two Confederate Generals despised each other and Wise had petitioned Lee to allow the commands to remain separate.

General Floyd technically outranked Wise, being commissioned a Brigadier-General a few days before him. If the forces were made into one army, Floyd knew Wise would be its commander. On this date, Lee replied to Wise.

Feeling that it would “destroy the prospect of the success of the campaign in the Kanawha District,” Lee “hoped” that Wise would join Floyd once his men were again able. General Lee had no actual command over either of the Generals or their troops in western Virginia, and so could only hope that his desires would be taken as orders.

General Floyd also wrote to Wise, telling him that he wished to move into the Kanawha Valley and asked him how many troops he would be able to bring with him, assuming Wise would follow.

Wise replied with a long, rambling letter filled with strange excuses, not even giving Floyd a vague idea of the number of troops he had available. Somewhere in the mass of too-long sentences, Wise promised to furnish exact numbers of infantry and artillery “very soon,” and figures for the cavalry, “somewhat later.”3

In reality, Wise had about 2,500 men, though he admitted more recruits were coming into his fold every day. Floyd had about 3,000.

It appeared that Lee would have to work a minor miracle to get the forces in western Virginia to simply cooperate with each other, let alone defeat the Yankees that were growing in number every day.

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New Hampshire Newspaper Destroyed by Union Troops

The First New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry had been with General Patterson’s Army of the Shenandoah prior to Bull Run. They were a three-month regiment that saw no fighting. Rumors that they had been mutinous surfaced in a hometown newspaper, the Democratic Standard of Concord, New Hampshire.

Six of the soldiers, having returned home, attacked the Standard’s office. Still in their uniforms, they ransacked the building and took the presses, the type, paper to the street and burned them. Meanwhile, the proprietors fought, possibly with guns, to keep the soldiers at bay.

Unable to assail the office, the soldiers hurled bricks and stones at the windows. More soldiers from the regiment were joining them and the proprietors made a stealthy escape out the back.4



  1. Letter from Secretary of War Simon Cameron to General Benjamin Butler, August 8, 1861. []
  2. Blood Hill by Brooksher. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p774-776. []
  4. Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1861 as printed in Lincoln’s Wrath by Jeffrey Manber and Neil Dahlstrom, 2005. This is an interesting, though probably sensational, book. The sources are good, but some of it should be taken with a grain of salt. []
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Escaped Slaves are Not Free; Gathering Rebels in Missouri by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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