Lee’s Great Slave Raid?! (Part 39) by Bill Vallante
You may or may not have heard of this story, but it appears to have grown both in scope and popularity in recent years. During the Gettysburg campaign, it is alleged that the Confederate army seized black Pennsylvanians in Gettysburg and the surrounding areas, (both runaway slaves and free blacks), threw them into chains and sent them back to Virginia to be sold.
The matter has gained mention in the more mainstream sources, Explore Pennsylvania History…..
…it has of course found its way into the Yankee blogosphere, Cenantua blog 12/05/2008…..
… it has, of course, generated a number of books, books.google.com – Gettysburg Campaign
…and it has, as you might expect, generated the usual amount of weeping and teeth-gnashing so common among those whose habit it is to wail and hyperventilate over social injustice – as in the case of this shrill excerpt from a letter writer to the Civil War Times:
“When Lee’s men entered Pennsylvania in 1863, it resulted in many former slaves and free blacks being rounded up and sent south into slavery. Where were the great leader’s orders to his men, forbidding such a practice? Such orders do not exist.”
I swear, every time I hear this story it seems to grow in size and scope. I suspect that in a few years, what used to be known as “The Gettysburg Campaign” will become known instead as “Lee’s Great Slave Raid!?”
I have no doubt that at least some African Americans living in South Central Pennsylvania were taken captive in 1863. There were African American communities in the Gettysburg area at that time, specifically in Biglerville, Chambersburg and Greencastle. There is no doubt that many of the people living there were runaway slaves, though certainly, not all. Further, the Constitution at that time stated that one person “bound to service” in one state, may not legally escape that service by fleeing into another state and the law at that time was such that runaway slaves were legally liable to recapture and to be returned to those who had originally owned them. And human nature, being what it is and always having its dark side (regardless of what color uniform it wore), has always been such that it would be shocking if no incidents of free African Americans (i.e., those who had legally been manumitted or who themselves had never been slaves), hadn’t been spirited away by less-than-honest men looking to make a quick buck for themselves at the auction block. What I have some serious doubts about is the scope of this incident, and the Confederate high command’s knowledge of it, or, its dedication to making it part of its military objectives for this campaign.
Now I haven’t read every Confederate letter or diary that’s out there, but I have searched the “Official Records”, the “Confederate Veteran”, the “Southern Historical Society Papers,” and other sources, including the “Slave Narratives” and have essentially come up (nearly) empty. In the “Official Records,” both Union AND Confederate dispatches, are devoid of any mention of this incident during the Gettysburg campaign. All these sources (which I own), are on searchable CD’s. Searches using words like, “negroes or negro,” “colored,” “slave or slaves,” as well as various other words or phrases, turn up nothing on this subject except three indirect references to African Americans or African American communities in this part of Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign. However, none of those references mention anyone getting hauled off and sold into slavery. If anything, the three sources that I did find left me scratching my head and wondering how much of this story is truth, and how much has been exaggerated or embellished…
Example 1 – One source not mentioned above, J.H. Segars’ and Charles Kelly Barrow’s book, Black Southerners in Confederate Armies, cites a mention on pp. 194-195 in a story about one “Levi Miller”, a “black confederate”. This reference was itself taken from the Winchester Evening Star, (Virginia), November 11, 1921. The author, Richard C. Radi, a soldier in the 5th Texas Infantry, Texas Brigade, Hoods Division, Longstreet’s corps, writes of Miller as follows:
I suppose one question would be why those “several negroes” referred to, who were most likely runaways, were not themselves hauled away? There is no mention by the narrator of such a thing in the story. And if the Confederate army was such a threat, why are they standing around talking to Levi instead of running for their lives? Perhaps they were already prisoners and were trying to convince Levi to free them and run off with them, but this is just conjecture. In any case, the narrator does not seem to make much of an issue at all about them being runaways except to note that they were, and this leaves me scratching my head!?
Example 2 – The May 1896 edition of the Confederate Veteran magazine, contains a short story on page 154, written by a Confederate Officer about his personal servant following the Battle of Gettysburg, entitled, “A TRIBUTE TO THE MAN IN BLACK.” The officer had been seriously wounded during the battle and was too injured to make the trip home in the wagon train. His servant, “George”, expressed concern about being captured by the pursuing Yankees.
According to the officer:
“I insisted on George accepting his freedom and joining a settlement of free negroes in the vicinity of Gettysburg, which we had passed through in going up to the battle. But he would have none of it. He wanted to stay with me always.”
It appears that the author did take note of a free black settlement that was actually located near Gettysburg that time. However, there is no mention of anyone getting hauled off, and indeed, if the settlement had been stripped of its residents, as some contemporary story-tellers claim, why would the officer tell “George” to go hide out there? (Incidentally, George refused his freedom and went off to rejoin the ANV (Army of Northern Virginia). He succeeded in catching up with the army but was later killed on the retreat by Federal cavalry.)
Example 3 – An incidental example, but one nonetheless, is found in the Sept 1898 issue of the Confederate Veteran (p. 417) by a veteran of the Gettysburg campaign. Again, no mention of the “old [black] couple” getting hauled off into slavery, nor any mention of the old black couple fleeing for their safety!
“On June 29 our division was countermarched to Greenville, via Scotland, to Gettysburg. On this entire line of march I saw only two negroes, and they were a very old couple, man and woman, standing on the roadside as the army passed. One of my company asked the negro man if he was "secesh," and he replied, "Yes, sir, massa, I sees you now…"
To reiterate – that some runaways were found in Pennsylvania and returned to Virginia, I have no doubt. As per the laws of that time, if you’re a runaway, and someone finds you, you’re going back to whoever owned you. That’s the way the law was at the time and I see no need for anyone 150 years later to have a stroke over it. I also have no doubt that some less-than-honest men in the Confederate army saw an opportunity to make a quick buck for themselves by spiriting away blacks who were not runaway slaves. Human nature is what it is and it’s not always good. Quite simply though, the absence of information on this “event” in the dispatches of both armies, as well as its absence in other sources mentioned, combined with the odd nature of the three references in question (above), makes me at least question the scale of this episode as it is being presented today, as well as the motivations of those who tell this story the loudest!
Let’s not forget that today’s favorite pastime among those who claim to be "historians", is to make the South look bad, and the more dramatically creative one can be in doing that, the more brownie points one garners from his or her fellow "historians"…
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