Freedom’s Forts

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Steve T. Phan

“The Red-Legged Devils have returned” was the battle cry as elements of the modern Co. A, 5th New York Infantry, “Duryee’s Zouaves,” arrived to Fortress Monroe National Monument in 2017. The living history group followed in the footsteps of the original historic regiment that disembarked off the tip of the Virginia Peninsula on May 18, 1861. The original gaudy-clad soldiers arrived to reinforce the isolated Federal citadel and immediately began scouting operations in enemy territory north of the brick bastion. Members of the regiment also witnessed the aftermath of the war’s first interaction between enslaved African Americans and the Federal armies during the Civil War. It was this consequential interplay involving the forces of slavery and freedom that inspired the living history group to attend and portray the events of 1861 a century and a half later.

Major General Benjamin Butler’s astute “Contraband Decision” during the war was the inspiration that brought the 5th New York living history group to Fort Monroe National Monument. I fell-in with the living history unit in November 2017 during the annual Remembrance Day Parade in Gettysburg and soon joined as an official member. The lead park ranger at Fort Monroe and a National Park Service colleague reached out and invited the 5th down to Hampton, Virginia for the annual “Contraband Decision” program. It is organized as a first-person living history act, where uniformed volunteers portrayed characters and units while visitors listened and observed the dialogue. The first living history station provided visitors access to Quarters No. 1 where they witness Maj. Gen.  Butler’s interview the three enslaved African American men who fled to the fort on 23 May 1861: Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend. Their testimony before the Massachusetts politician include details about constructing Confederate forts and earthworks up the Peninsula. The lawyer turned volunteer general resolved that he would hold the slaves— property being used against the United States—as contraband of war, setting a precedent that reverberated across the Union armies.

For the 5th New York living history station, news of the Contraband Decision arrived to our encampment by a civilian. George Templeton Strong—lawyer, diarist, and co-founder of the United States Sanitary Commission, (a private relief agency that supported sick and wounded soldiers), visited Fortress Monroe to observe conditions on the ground. Our station portrayed Strong spending time with the regiment’s officers. Over a meal, Strong relayed a conversation he had with General Butler concerning the enslaved men fleeing to the fort. Strong believed Butler’s decision to provide sanctuary for the three men was just a small drop before the tidal wave of African Americans fleeing to Federal lines. He was correct. Within days of the contraband declaration, dozens and then hundreds sought refuge at the fort. From the regiment’s perspective, Butler’s decision was secondary to the men’s desire to launch offensive operations against the enemy beyond Hampton. The first major land battle of the Civil War in Virginia occurred in early at Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, where the 5th saw action and performed well despite the Union defeat.

The Contraband Decision programs were quite provocative. As a frontline interpreter, I noticed how deeply fascinated many of the visitors were to the dialogue, especially the interaction between General Butler and the three men. It got me thinking about my work.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington were comprised of 68 major forts by the end of war. The first defensive strongholds were erected after the Federal army crossed the Potomac River and occupied the Arlington Heights and subsequently Alexandria (Virginia) in May 1861. Consequently, the forts became the testing ground that witnessed the complex struggle between slavery and freedom in the Nation’s capital. An estimated 40,000 African Americans fled to Washington D.C. during the Civil War, mostly from Virginia and Maryland. Before reaching the confines of the city, the refugees ran into direct contact with Federal forts, encampments, and soldiers. Exactly what this interaction entails has become the focus of my research and programs.

I have been developing History at Sunset programs for the Civil War Defenses of Washington (NPS). The first program details the evolving interpretation of freedom at Camp Brightwood, a large Federal encampment and logistical area located south of Fort Stevens. Finding accounts from Federal soldiers vividly describing the scene as African American came into Federal line from Maryland, I realize I’ve merely scratched the surface of this subject. There will be more detail of this research in my next post. Stay tuned!

Play Review – “Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: From Slavery to Modiste”

[used with permission]

In June 2018 I had the opportunity to attend a production of the new stage play Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: From Slavery to Modiste at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego, California. Entering the theater, I was unfamiliar with the details of Keckley’s life though I knew the basic story about her post-Civil War troubles with Mrs. Lincoln. Exiting after the short, one-act play, I had a greater appreciation for this remarkable woman and definitely wanted to dig into the history books to learn more. (Which I did!)

I think one of the benefits to community historical theater is the chance to introduce a friend or family member to history through the entertainment. This time I persuaded my dad to go with me, and we had some great discussions about the past on the way home.

When we entered the theater room and took our seats, we faced a raised platform lined with chairs and a few costume props – old fashion hats, bonnets, shawls, etc. To the right of the stage sat an old sewing machine and table, cleaned and polished, but standing alone. In front of the stage, a dressmaker’s mannequin displayed a dark dress.

Andrea Agosto gave an inspiring performance as Elizabeth Keckley, recounting in first-person Keckley’s life as a slave, how she purchased her freedom, and how she built her dressmaking business with good sense and integrity. The ensemble of actors and actresses interacted with Agosto and portrayed character’s from Keckley’s life, including her master and mistress, dressmaking customers, Frederick Douglass, Mrs. Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, friends, and apprentices.

The script – researched and written by Claudia Thompson – presented “Mrs. Keckley’s story through historical data with contemporary reflection.” Filled with lively, historically-accurate details and moments of wrenching sadness, it gave a solid glimpse into the life of a strong woman who lived in slavery and abuse but found a way to free herself and recreate her life and story. I appreciated the highlights on Keckley’s inspiring work-ethics and how she always tried to help others.

Elizabeth Keckley and her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln during the Civil War years and the break-up of that friendship when Keckley published her book have been the subject of gossip and valid historical discussion. The stage play focused on Keckley’s side of the story: she wanted to write a book to tell her story and help Mrs. Lincoln get financial assistance. Then organized chaos took over the stage as the ensemble characters rose to praise or condemn the book and author; the clamorous chorus silenced Keckley – a poignant reminder how society’s opinions can overshadow truth and intent, creating a dilemma or myth for future historians.

I won’t spoil the ending of the play, but I will say it was a powerful moment, reflecting to the past and sharing Keckley’s religious faith and looking to the future, praising the power to overcome life’s hardships.

[used with permission]

At the end of the production, attendees were encouraged to take printed literature provided by the producer and playwright, including a short historical biography about Keckley, a resource list, and photographs related to her life and legacy. It’s wonderful to see this openness and dedication to historical research! Returning home, I read one of the recommended books – Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley by Jennifer Fleischner – and learned more, delighted to find the accuracy of the stage production.

What’s in the future for this historical play? I’ve been in contact with some of the production team, and happily, several school districts have shown interest and may host a show tour! Interested in more details about sponsoring the show or hosting/attending a production, please reach out to Katherine Harroff ( who is currently coordinating the production and is the Arts Engagement Programs Associate.

Cheers to Claudia Thompson, the production team, and the cast for bringing Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley’s story to the stage and offering another chance to introduce theater attendees and classrooms to historical discussions about Women’s History, Black History, and Civil War Studies

Beyond the 13th Amendment: Ending Slavery in the Indian Territory

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Neil P. Chatelain

When exactly did legal slavery end in the United States? Many Americans unfamiliar with the particulars of the Civil War respond with 1863 and the issuing of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Still others respond with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, a statement that is largely true. The systematic targeting of the peculiar institution continued throughout the conflict, culminating in its death throes by the end of the fighting and its formal abolishment during the Johnson Administration. Slavery however, continued as a protected institution in the Indian Territory, despite the 13th Amendment. Recognizing such, the Department of the Interior took steps that culminated in the signing of treaties with numerous Native American tribes, in order to both introduce reconstruction across the Indian Territory and move beyond the 13th Amendment and finally end slavery in all parts of the United States.

Slavery in the Indian Territory, 1860
Author’s Creation

During the secession crisis following Abraham Lincoln’s election, great speculation resounded concerning the intentions of the Native American tribes located on reservations within the Indian Territory. The so called “Five Civilized Tribes” – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole – each sought to adopt American customs in an effort to stave off their eventual relocation from their ancestral homelands to the Indian Territory. Among the efforts included the formation of a written alphabet by the Cherokee, the adoption of tribal constitutions among numerous tribes, and the adoption of the institution of slavery. Though relocation eventually occurred despite these efforts, the changes they espoused, including the adoption of slavery, remained firmly in place. By 1860, the populations of these five tribes included no less than 7,000 documented slaves, with numerous unrecorded cases raising some estimates to as high as 10,000, spread out between over 1,000 tribal slaveholders.

Principal Chief John Ross of the Cherokee
US Library of Congress LC-USZC4-11120

Wishing to gain favor with the different tribes, in the spring of 1861 the fledgling Confederacy dispatched Albert Pike as an emissary to the Indian Territory. Debate raged, but one by one, the “Five Civilized Tribes” each signed a treaty of alliance with the new Confederate government, doing so in a fractured manner with elements of each tribe’s population instead choosing to depart the territory as Unionist refugees.[1]

The Cherokee emerged as the most fragmented of tribes. Principal Chief John Ross, the recognized leader of the Cherokee, grew increasingly apprehensive about allying with the Confederacy. After learning that members of his tribe had already enlisted in Southern armies, Ross grudgingly acquiesced, forging an alliance via treaty in October 1861. Just a few months later, and based on his original concerns, Ross fled the territory and proceeded to Washington, where he met with President Lincoln and proclaimed both his loyalty as well as that of the Cherokee people. Lincoln was skeptical of Ross, but allowed him to remain in Washington, where he spent the remainder of the war attempting to garner support for his faction of the tribe.

Brigadier General Stand Watie of the Cherokee
Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 10, no. 4, p. 540

The war waged across the territory just as it did across the continent and thousands of Native Americans enlisted on both sides, the majority under the Confederate flag. Union forays in 1862 and 1863 took control over most of the territory, but campaigns further east forced most troops to relocate east and activity in the territory devolved into a series of small guerrilla conflicts in the latter half of the war. At the close of hostilities, Brigadier General Stand Watie, the leader of the Southern wing of the Cherokee, became the last general to give up the fight.

The Northern faction of the Cherokee took steps to end slavery in areas of their control. Just a few weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, they signed their own proclamation of emancipation, declaring an end to slavery within the Cherokee Nation. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Cherokee, within Confederate lines and siding with the Southern faction, ignored the document. Northern Creeks similarly adopted Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but most tribal members, also within Confederate lines, likewise ignored the stance.[3]Throughout the war, slavery continued to remain a major issue within the Lincoln administration. The Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 became the first steps taken against the institution by the government, providing the ability for soldiers to confiscate the property of people taking part in the rebellion – including property in the form of slaves. In 1862, the national government passed an act outlawing slavery in all United States territories, excepting federally designated protected Native American lands under tribal autonomy. The Emancipation Proclamation emerged as the major step forward in the battle to end slavery, but it too failed to take the Indian Territory into consideration, instead applying only to “any State, or designated part of a State” in rebellion.[2]

Dennis N. Cooley, US Commissioner of Indian Affairs
Genealogy of the Cleveland and Cleveland Families. Vol. II, Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood, and Brainard, 1899, 1256

At the end of the war, the reconstruction process commenced and the Indian Territory was not exempt. Though Abraham Lincoln desired, and the Johnson Administration advocated for, a soft peace and quick reconstruction of the Union, a different stance was taken when it came to relations with native tribes that had sided with the Confederacy. In the opinion of the Johnson administration, all Native American tribes that made formal alliances with the Confederacy had their official treaties with the United States declared null and void; new treaties would have to be written and adopted to reestablish formal relations with the national government. To oversee the reconstruction of these tribes, the Department of the Interior organized a gathering at Fort Smith Arkansas, overseen by Dennis N. Cooley, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The Southern Treaty Commission convened in September 1865 and included representatives from over fifteen tribes, including members of each of the “Five Civilized Tribes.” Once again, the different tribal factions vied for power, unsurprisingly and most notably within the Cherokee. Former Confederate General Stand Watie and Principal Chief John Ross both claimed to represent their nation and squabbling continued throughout the process until the national government refused to officially recognize Ross, who soon after died while appealing the decision.

Numerous treaties were drawn up regarding each tribe assembled at the commission. Regarding the “Five Civilized Tribes,” four major treaties were negotiated and formally signed in 1866 – one with the Cherokee, one with the Creek, one with the Seminole, and a combined treaty with the Chickasaw and Choctaw. These treaties each contained four major provisions. To begin with, as punishment for aiding the Confederate rebellion, each tribe forfeited lands amounting to about half of their designated protected territory. The forfeited lands would be used for both the laying of railroads and for the concentration of numerous Plains tribes onto their own reservations within the Indian Territory, opening more of the West for settlement. The second provision of these treaties declared a general amnesty for all Native Americans who had violated previous treaties, broken laws, or joined in the Southern rebellion.

The final two provisions concerned ending slavery. Language identical to that in the 13th Amendment was written into each treaty, guaranteeing a final end to the institution of slavery. The final provision provided for the adoption of all freed slaves as immediate and recognized citizens within their respective tribes. Each of the “Five Civilized Tribes” voiced their concerns regarding these provisions, but ultimately, all approved their respective treaties. The nations each ratified final drafts in the spring and summer of 1866 and they went into effect in July and August of the same year, providing a final end to legal slavery within the Indian Territory, fully nine months after the 13th Amendment took effect across the rest of the United States.[4]

Treaty negotiation meant nothing to the slaves still in bondage across the Indian Territory, continuing as if the war had never occurred. R.C. Smith’s family had been enslaved for generations, with both his grandfather and father at one point being owned by John Ross himself. Seeking to keep his property from being confiscated, at the start of the war, Smith’s owner sent him to Texas, far away from Union lines. His father remained in the Indian Territory and eventually escaped to Union lines, joining a regiment in Kansas. Towards the end of the war, Smith was returned to his master in the Cherokee Nation’s territory. There he remained even after the 13th Amendment went into effect. “I was 17 or 18 years old when Abe Lincoln declared us free,” Smith later recalled, “but I never got my freedom till August 4, 1866,” fully eight days after the Cherokee Reconstruction Treaty was ratified and went into effect.[5]

These reconstruction treaties marked a profound impact in relations between the United States Government and Native Americans across the country. The reestablishment of relations with tribes allied with the Confederacy became an important first step, with the forfeiture of certain lands as a consequence needed to further the government’s agenda of concentration of Native Americans across the Plains onto reservations. Most importantly, a final end to slavery in North America became finally realized with the ratification of these documents, bringing a terminus to the outlines and desires of Abraham Lincoln, and ensuring freedmen received rights as citizens, presaging the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. This did not solve all issues however, as decades of squabbling continued between Native Americans and the freedmen members of their tribes, echoing the strife faced by freed slaves and their descendants across the rest of the country into the twentieth century and beyond.[6]

Neil P. Chatelain is an Instructor at Lone Star College-North Harris and a Social Studies Teacher at Carl Wunsche Senior High School in Spring, Texas. A former US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, he is a graduate of the University of New Orleans, the University of Houston, and the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Neil researches US Naval History, with a particular emphasis on naval operations of the Confederacy.


[1] Joseph C.G. Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864), 161.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “Emancipation Proclamation,” Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. by John G. Nicolay and John Hay (Harrogate, TN: Lincoln Memorial University, 1894), xv.

[3] Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, vol. 2, ed. by Charles J. Kappler (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904), 944.

[4] Each of the treaties with the “Five Civilized Tribes” can be found in Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Vol. 2 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904), 910-916, 918-937, 942-950

[5] T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker, eds., The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 401.

[6] Claudio Saunt, “The paradox of Freedom: Tribal Sovereignty and Emancipation during the Reconstruction of Indian Territory,” Journal of Southern History, vol. 70, no. 1 (January 2004), 75-76.

“What Shall Be Done with the Slave?” The 9th Illinois Cavalry and Practical Emancipation

Hiram Franklin Sickles (Dennis C. Schurr Collection)

I am frequently sidetracked when scanning through historic newspapers on a quest for specific information. What can I say, the headlines are still doing their job. Such was the case while digitally flipping through August 1862 issues of the Chicago Tribune. “What shall be done with the slave?” asked the commander of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, stationed at the time near Helena, Arkansas. As I guessed, the officer had already reached an opinion of his own. His letter to the editor is a perfect summary of how many northern soldiers saw emancipation as a means to end the war, regardless of their stance on abolition before 1861.

Hiram Franklin Sickles was born in Otsego, New York in 1818. He attended the Philadelphia Naval Asylum and served in the navy for a decade, working in the Topographical Department and twice circumnavigating the world. Afterward he settled in Moline, Illinois where he operated a flour mill, occasionally practiced law, and dabbled in local politics.

Moline Workman, November 4, 1856

It appears that Sickles did already have anti-slavery sentiments before the war. A Chicago Tribune article from December 15, 1860 stated that he met a St. Louis slave owner while travelling for business during the summer. Their discussion eventually turned to politics, and, after disagreeing, the two placed a bet on the results of the upcoming election–Sickles wagered flour from his mill against one of Eldad N. Whitford’s slaves. Sickles won the bet but promptly freed the slave but upon being summoned to St. Louis to take possession.

Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1860

Sickles’s flour business along the Mississippi River caused him to spend considerable time in New Orleans. A possibly apocryphal story from his 1892 obituary stated that when Louisiana seceded the local authorities confiscated all of Sickles’s property, forcing him to return north “impoverished but full of patriotism.”

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sickles helped drill new volunteer soldiers. He received a commission as major in the 9th Illinois Cavalry in September 1861 and was promoted lieutenant colonel in February 1862, frequently commanding the regiment. Of personal interest, the 9th Illinois Cavalry contained several companies of soldiers from my hometown of Geneseo. The regiment operated in Arkansas during 1862 as part of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Army of the Southwest.

Brigadier General Frederick Steele commanded one of Curtis’s division. He opposed confiscating slaves as “contraband of war” and reminded those around him of the orders of Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the department, “prohibiting fugitive slaves and unauthorized persons from coming within the lines.” The regimental historians of the 9th Illinois afterward noted that this directive showed “very clearly the delicate and kid-glove fashion in which at that time the war for the suppression of treason and rebellion was then being conducted.”

That approach began to change in late June when Curtis led an expedition through eastern Arkansas to reach the Mississippi River for resupply. The 9th Illinois participated in the march and suppressed an attack on the wagon train near Village Creek on June 27th. After suffering significant casualties, including the wounding of Colonel Albert G. Brackett, command passed to Sickles. The Army of the Southwest defeated another threat along their route at Cotton Plant on July 7th and safely reached the city of Helena one week later.

Army of the Southwest Expedition through Arkansas, June-July 1862 (map by author)

Their exposure to southern plantations along the way convinced them of the futility of waging a “soft war.” One member of the regiment, who called the march “one of the most arduous and fatiguing of any made during the civil war,” afterward recalled:

The weather was intensely hot, and the road lay through the malaria-breeding swamps and fenlands, where the trailing masses of Spanish moss on the great cypress trees wave like mourning bands over the reeking lands. Everything grows there in the rankest profusion, and the cotton and corn fields are most beautiful, the ground being rich and easily cultivated.

Most of the people residing in this region were strong in their secession feelings, and, being considerable slave-owners, were willing to shed their blood for what they considered right. There were many large plantations where great gangs of slaves were worked successfully, the cultivation being something marvelous.

A lawyer before the war, Curtis did not initially advocate for abolition. He continued to maintain that slaves of loyal citizens were not considered “contraband.” Such privilege did not extend to secessionists, however, and Confederate use of slaves to erect barricades along his route provided rationale to justify confiscation. The issue of emancipation was actively debated at the time in newspapers and in Congress but was not yet settled. Nevertheless, Curtis actively employed the contraband slaves his army encountered in foraging, scouting, guiding, and clearing the barricades along the route.

“Our Western boys were very thankful for their aid, and to it they attribute no inconsiderable share of the success which attended their march,” claimed the Chicago Tribune after an interview with Major William J. Wallis of the 9th Illinois Cavalry. “The Major further states that the prejudices which might have existed in the army against the employment of men of color in any way that they can be made useful, have entirely disappeared; and that soldiers who were the most rantankerous of Democrats when they started from home have become practical Abolitionists, to whom the work of liberation is now a positive delight.”

Of course there was no such unanimity in opinion. Captain Charles S. Cameron believed “a majority of the soldiers cared nothing about the question of slavery, but wished to fight the battles of the Country and let slavery take care of itself.” If Cameron’s statement was true, however, such sentiments were not publicly expressed to the same degree. Any such soldier opposition to emancipation put little damper on the desire of the slave population to seek freedom among the Union column.

Curtis commented to a correspondent with the New York Tribune about the intelligence and initiative of those who tagged along with his command, a testament to the grapevine communication network that undermined plantation owner efforts to keep their slaves ignorant. On July 31st the newspaperman wrote that the general remarked to him “that he was surprised at the intelligence they manifest and their perfect understanding of the causes of Rebellion and of their rights.” Curtis allowed those who came into Union lines at Helena to earn their own money through the sale of cotton seized from their former plantations.

Most estimates suggest that approximately 2,000 slaves reached Curtis’s army through the first week of August. That number steadily grew. For reference sake, the 1860 census listed a black population of 17,660 for the five counties through which Curtis’ expedition marched.

“The presence of the Army of the Southwest sounded the death knell of slavery in Arkansas’s premier agricultural region,” historians William Shea and Earl Hess recently concluded. “Curtis emancipated slaves on a mass scale, ignoring the fact that in mid-1862 he lacked the authority to do any such thing. In towns along the way soldiers commandeered printing presses and produced stacks of emancipation forms. News of what the Federals were doing spread like wildfire, and by the end of the campaign, more than three thousand refugee slaves, ‘freedom papers’ in hand, trailed the dusty blue column en route to an uncertain future.”

Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1862

Lieutenant Colonel Sickles saw complete emancipation throughout the Confederacy as the best possible future. On July 30th he wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune that appeared in print on August 15th.

It has become a subject of much interest to nearly all army officers in the field, what is to be done with the slaves of rebel owners? I think a large majority of both officers and men were, on entering the field, decidedly opposed to any policy, either civil or military, that would effect the “status” of the slave, in any of the States where the “institution” is legalized by proper local enactments. But a wonderful change has come over the entire surface of affairs, teaching us, through bitter experience that such doctrines are entirely incompatible with the successful prosecution of this war, on the part of the federal government or others in authority.

My own experience, as well as that of hundreds of other officers of the army of the Southwest, furnish to us the most unmistakable evidence that this rebellion cannot be conquered while this element of power is left to the disloyal slaveholder–and nearly all slave owners are disloyal. The sacredness which seems to surround this class of property in the South, gives to the enemy a tower of strength. We find that while the slave owners are in thousands of instances actually connected with the rebel army–guerrilla bands, or otherwise aiding and encouraging the common enemy of the United State government, the slave population is actively employed (under protection of our own troops) in carrying forward the different branches of material industry throughout the slaveholding States. Indeed, nearly all of the labor which gives to the south its important strength, is derived from this class of property, which seems to have had the benediction of all our prayers.

I have been taught, like many others, that where the slave has been unmolested in his labors, under direction of his owner or overseer, there we find nearly every white male inhabitant of suitable age absent from home, either in the rebel army or “bushwhacking.” Not only this, but the poor whites who are not able to own slaves, are furnished with labor to till their little patches of ground from the slave population, while they themselves are in the service of the enemies of our country.

In this way, our government is rending the most essential service to the South, in protecting and reserving a power to her, which she cannot find in any other direction. The negro is also employed in building fortifications for the enemy–constructing barricades and entrenchments, and in some instances have had arms put into their hands to use against our troops.

With these facts coming within the range of the knowledge and experience of nearly every officer in active service in the seceded States, I have no hesitation in saying, and of holding myself responsible for the truthfulness of the declaration, that, with all the energies at command of this government, this rebellion will likely to continue until either terms of peace are arranged between the contending parties, or that this important element of power, now reserved to the South by the military and civic authorities of the United States government, shall be weakened to such an extent that the slave shall no longer remain the bone and sinew, the entrenchment and stronghold of his rebellious master.

The changing attitude of the 9th Illinois Cavalry was but one of many similar experiences among Union forces throughout the south. President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was only a month away.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in history, the story of the contrabands at Helena cannot be neatly wrapped up with that happy ending. Curtis left the Army of the Southwest in late August to take command of the Department of Missouri. General Steele therefore replaced him as army commander at Helena and soon reversed many of Curtis’s policies, particularly in regard to the slaves who thought they had found liberation within the Union army. Steele went so far as to actively encourage regional plantation owners to journey to Helena for the recovery of their slaves. By the formal signing of the Proclamation on January 1, 1862, however, Steele had moved on as well.

Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, August 14, 1862

While researching Sickles, I found as a bonus another of his published letters. This one was addressed to the editor of a local paper, the Rock Island Argus and Daily Union.

Camp, near Helena, Ark., Aug. 5th, 1862.

J.B. Danforth, Jr.: I regret to learn that there yet remains in the loyal states some people, who assume to believe that intervention on the part of the federal government with reference to private property in the seceded states is unwise and impolitic, especially where the question relates to negro slaves. They seek to fortify their logic upon the unconstitutionality of such a measure. If it were not true that treason and rebellion are equally unconstitutional, then the correctness of this reasoning would be readily conceded.

It must admitted that as a mere technical proposition such conclusions are correct. But when the destiny of a great nation hangs upon the variation of a fundamental law, and its very existence is depending upon its reasonable infraction, then I think there are none who have the love of country in their hearts who will doubt the wisdom of such a measure. These nice distinctions, which gave to the politician the ground-work of his faith at a time when peace and prosperity were enjoyed by every citizen of this great commonwealth, can hardly hold their empire when the most crushing accumulation of disaster and ruin balancing in the scale, and ready to fall upon our unhappy country.

I know, from my own experience as a federal army officer, in active service in some of the seceded states, that the policy hitherto pursued and yet insisted upon by the tender footed demagogues, has placed in the hands of the enemy of our country a goodly portion of their material resources to prosecute this unholy war against us. As startling as this declaration may seem, it is nevertheless true, as I think I shall be able to prove.

Those who are familiar with the institutions of the south, and the organization of its society, will admit that the principal element of its material industry, consists in its slave population. This tower of strength still left to the undisturbed control of this refractory and rebellious people, and protected by the fostering care of our beneficial government, with all the omnipotent energies of its military and civic powers, how thankful ought these traitors to be that while they trample upon constitutions, and hurl defiance in our teeth, they still deal with a government that has such yearning solicitude and consideration for their wellfare.

The owners of negroes, in a majority of cases, so far as my observation extends, and I think it generally true, are directly or indirectly connected with the Confederate army in some way, either as officers, furnishers of supplies, or otherwise aiding and abetting this rebellion. The slave population is left at home, with the benediction of “political hacks” pronounced upon it, that this servile labor may continue to build fortifications and entrenchments for our enemies, construct barricades, and above all, to fill their grainaries from the abundant harvest,–the result of slave labor protected by us. There is but little cotton permitted to be raised in any of the slave states. This prohibition is by order of the rebel government. But all tillable land is to be employed in raising corn, wheat, oats, potatoes, and anything that will subsist its armies; and, again, the poorer class of white people who are not able to own slaves, are furnished by their more opulent neighbors with slaves to till their little patches of ground for the support of their families, while all the men of suitable age are fighting against us. These are facts, and I hold myself responsible for the truthfulness of the declaration.

You may as well undertake to reverse the current of the Mississippi with a clam shell as to bring this rebellion to a speedy and successful close, without humiliating compromises, unless we first cripple and weaken this great element of rebel power. At present I have no politics, and recite these facts for the benefit of my northern friends, who take a south-side view, only, of these questions.

Respectfully yours,

H.F. Sickles. Lt. Col. 9th Ill. Cavalry.



“Moline Mills.” Moline Workman, November 4, 1856.

“A Wager.” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1860.

“From Curtis’ Column.” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1862.

Sickles, H.F. to “Messrs. Editors,” July 30, 1862. “What Shall Be Done With the Slave? A Letter from Lieut. Col. Sickles, 9th Illinois Cavalry.” Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1862.

Guilbert to editor, July 31, 1862. “Interesting from Curtis’s Army.” New York Tribune, August 6, 1862.

Sickles, H.F. to J.B. Danforth, Jr., August 5, 1862. “Letter from Lt. Col. Sickles.” Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, August 14, 1862.

Browning, Orville H. Diary, October 14, 1862. Theodore C. Pease and James G. Randall, eds. The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume 1, 1850-1864. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Librabry, 1925.

“A Famous March: Fighting Our Way Through Arkansas.” Chicago Times, August 7, 1886.

Davenport, Edward A., ed. History of the Ninth Regiment Illinois Cavalry Volunteers. Chicago, IL: Donohue & Henneberry, 1888.

“Mustered Out.” National Tribune, July 21, 1892.

Hess, Earl J. “Confiscation and the Northern War Effort: The Army of the Southwest at Helena.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 1 (Spring, 1985).

Shea, William L. and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Teters, Kristopher A. Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Remembering Sergeant Carney

One hundred and eighteen years ago today—May 23, 1900—William H. Carney received the Medal of Honor for actions in July 1863 during the Civil War.  President William McKinley, who issued the Medal in the name of Congress (hence the oft-used misnomer “Congressional Medal of Honor”) was himself a Civil War veteran, having enlisted in the 23rd Ohio as a private in the war’s early days and rising to the rank of major by war’s end.  Hundreds of Medals of Honor were awarded to Civil War soldiers in the decades after the war.  In fact, some of the Civil War’s most famous recipients of the Medal did not receive it until many years later.  For example, Daniel E. Sickles and Joshua L. Chamberlain both received the award for actions at the July 1-3, 1863 battle of Gettysburg.  But Chamberlain did not receive the award until 1893, and Sickles waited until 1897 for his.

So Carney receiving his award decades after his action was not at all unusual.  What was somewhat out of the ordinary, though, was that Carney was African American.  In fact, because his action preceded those of other Medal of Honor recipients, Carney is considered the first African American to receive the nation’s highest award for military valor.


William H. Carney later in life and wearing his Medal of Honor.  (Howard University)

William Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia in February 1840.  It is not entirely clear how he escaped slavery, but most think he used the Underground Railroad to make his way to Massachusetts.  His father was already there, and other family members who purchased their own freedom or became free upon the death of their owner soon joined them in the North.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and among other things the proclamation allowed African Americans to be recruited to fight for the Union as soldiers and sailors.  Probably the most famous all-black unit was the 54th Massachusetts, whose exploits were the subject of the popular 1989 Hollywood film Glory.  Carney enlisted in the 54th in March 1863.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts led the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina (the attack depicted in Glory’s climactic scene).  As the regiment advanced, the color sergeant went down and Carney scooped up the colors.  He continued to advance despite being wounded several times, eventually planting the flag on Fort Wagner’s parapet.  Ultimately, though, the attack did not succeed, and the 54th Massachusetts was forced to withdraw.  Sergeant Carney carried the colors back to the safety of Union lines.  Weak from his wounds and blood loss, Carney turned the flag over to another soldier of the 54th, supposedly telling him, “Boys, I did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.”


The popular 1989 film Glory dramatized the exploits of Sgt. Carney’s 54th Massachusetts Infantry.  The film, directed by Edward Zwick, starred Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman.  Washington won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Glory.  (

Carney survived but was discharged due to his wounds in June 1864.  He returned to his adopted hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts and worked for a time maintaining the city’s streetlights and then for thirty-two years as a postal worker.  He married and had a daughter and became well-known in Massachusetts for telling the story of the Fort Wagner assault to schoolchildren.  He always ended his presentations with his now-famous phrase “The old flag never touched the ground.”

The Medal of Honor citation Carney received on this day 118 years ago reads as follows:  “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”

William H. Carney died at age 68 on December 9, 1908 following an elevator accident.  He is interred in his family’s plot in New Bedford’s Oak Grove Cemetery.  He received a Medal of Honor tombstone from the federal government.


Tombstone of Sgt. William H. Carney in Oak Grove Cemetery, New Bedford, Massachusetts.  (

Sergeant William H. Carney served his country nobly and deserves recognition not only as the first African American to perform an action deemed worthy of the Medal of Honor, but, simply, as a veteran.  Though he did not die in battle, he is still worthy of remembrance this coming Memorial Day weekend.  That he and nearly 200,000 other African Americans volunteered to fight for the Union demonstrates not only their own courage, but also the truly personal stake each of them had in the outcome of the Civil War.