Fugitive Slave Case in Kentucky Becomes National Crisis

November 17, 1862

Army Captain William R. Utley of Wisconsin writes former Governor  Alexander Randall regarding Utley’s refusal to return a fugitive slave to his owner, editor George Roberson: “I am in a devil of a scrape, and appeal to you for assistence. I have to a verry limited extent carried out the laws of Congress and the Proclimation of the President. All Ky. is in a blaze. I am ahead yet, but they have taken a new dodge on me, they have got me indicted at Lexington under the Laws of Kentucky.”  Captain Utley also wrote a long letter of explanation to President Lincoln regarding his interpretation of the draft Emancipation Proclamation:

Permit me respectfully to appeal to you, and I do so fully confident of being heard, for your protection and that of Generals sustaining me in an effort to support the Constitution, laws of Congress and the proclamation of the President, against the fierce and malignant opposition of the slave power of Kentucky.

When at our quiet and peaceful homes in Wisconsin and pursuing the usual honorable callings of life, your appeal for 600,000 men to defend the country and the Constitution, both of which were threatened by rebels in arms against the government, sounded in our ears. We immediately laid down our implements of husbandry, took up the sword, bade adieu to our homes and hastened to the rescue.

For a long time, without tents, but scantily supplied with conveyances, and enduring the various hardships and privasions of military life and of army marches, fully realized only by those who have experienced them, and though passing through a country abounding with the necessaries and even with the luxuries of life, presenting their allurements to the soldier’s appetite, committing no depradations upon the rights of citizens, we penetrated the state of Kentucky, the devastating hords of rebels fleeing before us till they are driven beyond the boundaries of the State.

As a compensation for these sacrafices, hardships and exposures, for which Kentucky more directly receives the benefits, I now find myself indited for man-stealing, by a Kentucky court, and hunted by her officers as a fellon for her penitentiary.

The facts in the case are few, simple, and easily stated.

From the time the Regiment entered the state, a continued and constantly increasing pressure has been brought to bear upon it, to force it into the service of the slave power and to involve it in the reproach of returning fugatives from oppression to their fetters and chains. In some instances orders have been obtained from commanding generals to the regiment demanding the rendition of such fugatives. Such orders, I considered unorthorised recognizing you alone as authority in these matters, and, on that ground, I have refused to obey them.3

On Friday last, Judge Robinson4 of Lexington, representing himself as a Union man of whose counsels in the affairs of the government you have seen fit to avail yourself, come into my lines, and claimed and demanded as his property, a Negro boy found in the regiment. How, when, where, or by what means the boy came into the lines, or by whom he was claimed as property, I had previously no knowledge. It then appeared that he crept in, cold, bare-foot and hungry in the midst of a dreary snow storm. I refused to recognise his claims, to lead the boy, as he requested, beyond my lines, or to forbid the soldiers from interfereing should he attempt to do so. He was not, however, forbidden to take him, though, perhaps, he should have been. The boy refused to go with him and claimed protection from the power of one whose cruel treatment, as he asserted, had already made him a dwarf instead of a man.

For the course taken in this case, I am now indited for man-stealing and hunted as a fellon. To you, I now appeal for that protection which can come from no other human e hand, for simply standing by the Constitution, obeying the laws of Congress and honoring the Proclamation of the President of the United States issued on the 23d day of September last.

I also respectfully ask that Gen. Beard, now in command of this Brigade, may not be suffered to lose his command or to suffer in any other way or manner, on account of the honorable, patriotic and, as I judge, Constitutional support given me in my position.

All these difficulties are occasioned by the self-styled Union men of Kentucky. Judge Robinson declared the President’s Proclamation of the 23d of Sept, to be unconstitutional, to have no bearing on Kentucky and that the State would never submit to it. He also declared it the policy and purpose of commanders of the army in Kentucky to ignore and render it a dead letter.

The 22d Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers, which I have the honor to command, is not made up of a set of home-sick boys. These men are possed of intelligence and did not enter the service of their country, anticipating no hardships. They do not complain of sacrifices. They are not easily intimmidated. They manifest a noble determination to stand or fall — to live or die with their country. But they are capable of weighing questions involved, and of feeling the force of principles at issue. They do claim the right of remaining men. They do most solemnly and earnestly protest against being degraded to the low, base and inhuman work of sending or returning guiltless fellow-men to cruel bondage. By them, such an institution as slavery is unknown– They recognize only two classes of men — loyalists and rebels–

Your prompt action, in the case, will be anxiously, but hopefully anticipated. Involved in it, is a principal of vital interest to the country; and important consequences may follow your decision. Whether soldiers from free states, in the service of the General Government, are to be subject to the civil authorities and the slave-codes of slave-holding states, is a question in which loyalty itself cannot be uninterested.

President Lincoln gets a lot of unsolicited advice.  He replies to one cranky and incoherent resident of Philadelphia: “Your despatch of to-day received. I do not at all understand it.”

Published in: on November 17, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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