Lincoln Frees the Slaves in Washington; Davis Signs Conscription Act

April 16, 1862 (Wednesday)

Slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia

When Abraham Lincoln first entered Washington, DC, as a Representative from Illinois in 1847, he was shocked at the amount of slave trading going on in the capital. In his youth, he had seen slavery firsthand in his travels, and had witnessed it in his wife’s hometown. But the volume of trade in human chattel in the nation’s capital was alarming.

A few blocks from his apartment was an auction block where human beingofs would be sold to the highest bidder. On the grassy mall, large holding pens kept slaves locked up awaiting sale. All throughout the city, black slaves were herded, chains rattling, as they shuffled along.

While in office, Lincoln introduced a bill that would gradually free Washington’s slaves. However, congress was not yet ready for such a scheme as this.1

While the slave trade was banned in Washington in 1850, by 1862, there was still nearly 3,000 slaves within the confines of the city. No doubt remembering the bill he proposed in 1849, on this date, Lincoln signed a new bill, emancipating the slaves within the boundaries of Washington DC.

Home of the Oppressed! (circa 1836)

The abolitionists saw it as a step in the right direction, while the South largely viewed it as a dark, foreshadow of things to come.2

They were, of course, correct. By this time, it was obvious that leaving the Congress in the hands of the Republicans meant that slavery would be attacked. Three days prior to this, Lincoln had signed into law another bill, forbidding soldiers and officers in the Union Army from returning runaway slaves to their masters.

This is not to say that the Republicans and remaining Democrats lit candles, held hands and sang “John Brown’s Body” together. There was, in fact, a large gulf between the two parties. The Democrats, even from New England, such as Senator Jacob Collamer from Vermont, referred to blacks as “dirty negroes” during one of his anti-confiscation speeches. “The white man shall govern and the nigger never shall be his equal,” exclaimed Collamer to wild applause.

Free blacks of Washington celebration their new freedom.

Many Republicans would hardly disagree with these claims, but still wished for slavery to be abolished. It was only the radical Republicans who believed that black people were equal to whites.

The Republicans held sway over the vote, passing one anti-slavery law after another. By the time their session ended in July, twenty-six such laws had been passed.3

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Davis Signs Conscription Act

While the Union President was giving people their freedom, the Confederate President was taking freedom away, signing the new nation’s first conscription act. The law gave President Jefferson Davis the power to call upon every white male, age eighteen to thirty-five, to give three years of his life to the Confederate Army. It also required all men currently enlisted to be reenlisted.

This act exempted nobody, but it did allow for substitutions, if one could find another, older than thirty-five, who wanted to fight for the South and had not already enlisted.

All of this was a bit short-sighted. If all of the able-bodied white males were grafted into the army, who would work all of the jobs that slaves were not allowed to do? Who would operate the telegraphs, teach in colleges, and deliver the mail? Such exemptions, and many, many more, were soon to be made.4

Southern "Volunteers"

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McClellan’s First Jab at the Rebels

In what was practically a world apart from such politics, General George McClellan believed he had found a weakness in the Rebel lines on the Virginia Peninsula. The Confederates had erected a one-gun battery near Dam No. 1, up the Warwick River from Lee’s Mill. He called upon General “Baldy” Smith to force the Rebels to stop work on the battery. However, he cautioned that no general battle should be brought on. If Smith could simply get the Confederates to stop making improvements to their works, McClellan would be thrilled.

Rebel battery near the mill pond.

Between Smith’s Division and the Confederates was a large mill pond. Throughout the day, Union artillery bombarded their foes, who had ducked down behind their works for cover. Unable to see the Rebels, a Federal lieutenant crossed the pond, which was up over his waist, crawled to within fifty yards of the Confederate works. The only thing he could see behind them was wagons carrying away supplies.

Believing the works could be taken, Smith crossed over four Vermont companies, who dodged the enemy skirmish fire and took the Rebel works. Though the rifle pits had been taken, neither Smith nor General McClellan, who had dropped by to see how it was going, seemed to know what to do next.

The captain who led the raiding party had been mortally wounded and three brigades worth of Confederates were regrouping to retake their works. The Rebels through one regiment forward, but the sharp defense by the 200 Federals drove them back.

The Vermonters called twice for reinforcements, but none came. After forty long minutes in the Rebel trenches, the Union troops retreated back across the pond.

McClellan saw little need for more, having reached his objective, stopping the Rebels from working on the one-gun battery. He took leave of Smith, figuring that Smith would continue to throw artillery rounds into the Rebel position.

Smith, however, wanted to retake the position. He believed that he could do so, while still not bringing on a general engagement.

Skirmish at Lee's Mills.

Around 5pm, Smith sent two regiments across the river. The 4th Vermont crossed on the dam, stopping short of attacking to create a diversion, while the 6th Vermont crossed upstream through water that was neck-deep.

The 6th rushed the works and took them, but became embroiled in a two-hour struggle with the swampy ground and the Rebels. In the trenches, they were exposed to both enemy infantry and artillery fire. When they could withstand no more, the Vermonters retreated.

Smith ordered the artillery to cease fire and the day was at an end. The second attack was pointless, but McClellan’s objective was met.5



  1. The Lincolns; Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein, Ballantine Books, 2008. []
  2. Fugitive slaves (1619-1865)by Marion Gleason McDougall, Ginn & Co., 1891. []
  3. From Property to Person: Slavery and the Confiscation Acts, 1861-1862 by Silvana R. Siddali, Louisiana State University Press, 2005. []
  4. Public Laws of the Confederate States of America, First Congress 1862, edited by James Muscoe Matthews, Richmond, 1862. []
  5. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie, Savas Beatie, 2007. []
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Lincoln Frees the Slaves in Washington; Davis Signs Conscription Act by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International
  1. Interesting that the District of Columbia Compensation Act was the only compensated emancipation enacted in the US. The emancipation plan relied on a three-person Emancipation Commission to distribute the allotted funding. In order to receive compensation, former slaveholders were required to provide written evidence of their ownership, as well as state their loyalty to the Union. Most of the petitioners were white, but some blacks also filed for compensation, having once bought their family members away from other owners. In the end, almost all of the $1 million appropriated in the act had been spent.

    As a result of the act’s passage, 3,185 slaves were freed. However, the older fugitive slave laws, were still applied to slaves who had run from Maryland to Washington, D.C. The slaves were still subject to the laws, which supposedly applied only to states, until their 1864 repeal.