May 6, 1862
Gen. Schenck’s Reply to a Demand upon him for the return of Slaves Within His Camp.
Headquarters, Schenck’s Brigade,
Capt Lee, April 26, 1862.
Sir: I am instructed by Gen. Schenck to reply to your letter of the 17th inst., in which you state that two boys, servants (meaning blacks—slaves) have been employed by officers of the 5th Regiment Virginia Volunteer Infantry, belonging to this brigade; that the boys desire to return to you; and that you request the General to take measures for having them restored or sent back.
The General has sent for the boys, found them, examined and carefully interrogated them himself, and ascertains, from their account of themselves, that they left of their own accord, and prefer remaining where they are. He will not therefore interfere between you and them.
By your own admission these boys are not claimed by you as property of your own, but are represented as belonging to your son, James Armstrong, who, some since, for reasons connected with his relation to the present disturbed condition of our country, abandoned his farm or household, leaving his servants behind him. If he had remained at home, as a true and loyal citizen, it is not probable that they would have followed his example, or sought place or employment elsewhere.—But this fact does not materially affect the question. The decision of the General would have been the same if the boys were claimed as your own slaves.
You are aware, it seems, of the existence of a law, recently passed by Congress, prohibiting the use of our soldiers in returning to their masters fugitives from service. This law you must expect him to obey under his sense of duty as an officer; and he will obey it cheerfully because it commends itself to his judgment and conscience as a necessary and wholesome enactment. It is neither reasonable to expect our armies, nor, in fact, possible for them, to carry along on the march the proper civil agents and process to enforce the statutory provisions in relation to fugitives. Our military forces have all their time and attention more appropriately occupied in the suppression of a causeless and infamous rebellion, instigated and sustained generally by the very men who, while they thus interrupt the due enforcement and execution of the laws by the regularly constitu[t]ed tribunals and ministers, are clamorous for help for that peculiar species of property, which have little possible protection outside of the Constitution and Union which they are treacherously seeking to overthrow.
The General commanding this brigade will, therefore, as has been stated to you, not interfere with the military force at his command between the claimant and the fugitive slave. He will neither allow the one class nor the other as loafers about his camps. But if either of them, coming voluntarily within his lines, can be profitably employed, within the scope of military restrictions and usage, as guides, servants, laborers, or in any other available capacity, he will not hesitate to so engage them or permit them to be engaged. He will punish any officer or private soldier of his command who may be caught either enticing or forcing a slave to leave his loyal master; but he will not lend his soldiers to be established as guards to prevent the escape of fugitives from bondage seeking their liberty.
In his camps, too, he is resolved there shall be no disturbance occasioned by this peculiar relation and the claims to which it gives rise. If the master and the runaway, in case the latter be found at any time within our lines, can quietly agree, to their mutual satisfaction, that the old relation between them shall be restored, the General will not permit interference to prevent such amicable adjustment of the question. But he will not allow force to be used, either by the master to reclaim his power, or by his officers or soldiers to resist the demand. Such conduct he would punish, on either side, as he would any another [sic] scene of disorder subversive of military rule and good discipline.
By order of Brig.-Gen. Schenck.
Donn Piatt, A. A. G.
Hon. William Armstrong, New Creek Va.
Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood: Undated: April 1862