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The South’s Colored Troops Problem [1864]

This article was reproduced in The Liberator on September 9, 1864. The report from Richmond sheds light on the feelings of many Southern supporters of the Confederacy to how to handle black combatants and prisoners of war.

Richmond Dispatch, Aug. 5th, 1864:

Among the eleven hundred prisoners taken by our forces last Saturday, before Petersburg, two hundred were negroes, many of them, perhaps all of them, stolen or runaway slaves. If any advertisement has yet been published in the papers, calling upon persons who have lost slaves to come forward and identify their property and take it away, we have not observed such advertisement.

Lately, there were many negroes recovered from the raiding party of Kautz and Wilson;, their names were very properly published, and their owners informed where they could come and take them. The two hundred black rascals taken alive in the Petersburg trenches, (most improperly taken alive, as they proclaimed “No quarter,”) now that they are in our hands, are worth half a million. It may be hoped that, strict examination will be made among them, and due notice given to such as have lately, been robbed of such property, with a view of making restitution of such of them as are slaves.

The right of the Yankee Government is undoubted to enlist, or to draft , or to procure how they can, free negroes whose residence is at the North.

They would have a perfect right to make war upon us with elephants, or to stampede us with wild cattle, or to set dogs upon us—and our men an equal right to kill them; a perfect right, therefore, to employ negroes as soldiers. But they have no right to steal a man’s negro, and arm him against his master; and his master, wherever he may find that stolen or runaway negro, is entitled to, reclaim him. On this point, our Government is happily committed; and it can by no means evade the plain duty of restoring recaptured slaves to their owners, unless, indeed, it recognizes the validity of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as of the Confiscation Act; but this is not to be supposed.

It was not, however, making a good beginning to march up these two hundred negroes along with nine hundred white men, as prisoners of war, through the streets of Petersburg, instead of separating them, and driving them into a pen by themselves until their status could be ascertained, and their owners, if any, found.

“Two hundred genuine Ebo-skins sprinkled among the crowd of prisoners,” and placed on the same footing, was a sight, the moral effect of which on the slaves of Petersburg could not be wholesome; and it is mainly upon that ground we disapprove of the exhibition—not because they were not good enough company for the Yankees they marched with.

Without, however, going further into that matter at present, it is enough to remark that we have not, as yet, heard of any of those two hundred negroes being restored to their owners, nor met with any advertisement that they await identification.

Anyone who has lost slaves, however, need not await the invitation, but ought to go at once, demand to pass the whole squad in review, and if he recognizes a stolen or runaway slave of his own or any neighbor, to reclaim him or take possession of him. Any such planter going to reclaim his slave, if he meets with any difficulty, had better not be discouraged, but demand to see one superior officer after another until becomes to General Lee. If, after all, he cannot get back his slave, or if he is not allowed to examine the “prisoners,” to see whether his slave is among them, then let him communicate all too facts to the public, through the newspapers.

Source:  The Liberator, September 9, 1864


William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator was a weekly abolitionist newspaper published in Boston. The paper held true to the founder’s ideals. Garrison was a journalistic crusader who advocated the immediate emancipation of all slaves and gained a national reputation for being one of the most radical of American abolitionists.

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