A Nation’s Slow March Toward Freedom — The Key Steps Taken by America to Abolish Slavery

“An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” was passed by the Pennsylvania Assembly on March 1, 1780 (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, public domain).

The elimination of slavery in the United States of America has been a lengthy and less than perfect process, beginning with early abolition efforts which occurred during the nation’s colonial period, and which were designed to reduce and ultimately end the buying, selling, and exchanging or bartering of human beings. According to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, “the first written protest in England’s American colonies came from Germantown Friends in 1688” in Pennsylvania; the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends also subsequently “criticized the importation of slaves in 1696, objected to slave trading in 1754, and in 1775 determined to disown members who would not free their slaves.”

That same year, America’s first abolition organization, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was also established. Formed in Philadelphia on April 14, 1775, the organization became more commonly known as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. “Throughout the 1700s,” according to PHMC historians, the Pennsylvania Assembly also actively “attempted to discourage the slave trade by taxing it repeatedly,” and then began taking a slightly more intense approach by passing An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slaveryby a vote of 34 to 21 on March 1, 1870. The first legislative action of its kind in America, it decreed, among other things, “that ‘every Negro and Mulatto child born within the State after the passing of the Act (1780) would be free upon reaching age twenty-eight,'” and that after their release from slavery, these freed people “were to receive the same freedom dues and other privileges ‘such as tools of their trade,’ as servants bound by indenture for four years.” Heavily opposed by German Lutherans and the representatives of counties with large populations of residents of German heritage, this new law still allowed residents of the Keystone State to continue to buy slaves who had already been registered, but prohibited Pennsylvanians from importing new slaves into the state.

* Note: Although a significant number of German Lutherans initially opposed the state’s 1870 abolition act, many German Methodists adopted anti-slavery positions, as did many who were considered to be “Forty-Eighters” (Germans who emigrated to America during or after the revolutions of 1848).

Although opponents of Pennsylvania’s new abolition law continued to challenge this legislation for several years after its passage, the legislation ultimately survived, and was subsequently strengthened in 1788 to stop Pennsylvanians residing near the borders of Delaware and Maryland from sneaking slaves into the state in violation of the law. The full wording of Pennsylvania’s initial abolition act read as follows:

When we contemplate our Abhorence of that Condition to which the Arms and Tyranny of Great Britain were exerted to reduce us, when we look back on the Variety of Dangers to which we have been exposed, and how miraculously our Wants in many Instances have been supplied and our Deliverances wrought, when even Hope and human fortitude have become unequal to the Conflict; we are unavoidably led to a serious and grateful Sense of the manifold Blessings which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being from whom every good and perfect Gift cometh. Impressed with these Ideas we conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our Power, to extend a Portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us; and a Release from that State of Thraldom, to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every Prospect of being delivered. It is not for us to enquire, why, in the Creation of Mankind, the Inhabitants of the several parts of the Earth, were distinguished by a difference in Feature or Complexion. It is sufficient to know that all are the Work of an Almighty Hand, We find in the distribution of the human Species, that the most fertile, as well as the most barren parts of the Earth are inhabited by Men of Complexions different from ours and from each other, from whence we may reasonably as well as religiously infer, that he, who placed them in their various Situations, hath extended equally his Care and Protection to all, and that it becometh not us to counteract his Mercies.

We esteem a peculiar Blessing granted to us, that we are enabled this Day to add one more Step to universal Civilization by removing as much as possible the Sorrows of those, who have lived in undeserved Bondage, and from which by the assumed Authority of the Kings of Britain, no effectual legal Relief could be obtained. Weaned by a long Course of Experience from those narrow Prejudices and Partialities we had imbibed, we find our Hearts enlarged with Kindness and Benevolence towards Men of all Conditions and Nations; and we conceive ourselves at this particular Period extraordinarily called upon by the Blessings which we have received, to manifest the Sincerity of our Profession and to give a substantial Proof of our Gratitude.

And whereas, the Condition of those Persons who have heretofore been denominated Negroe and Mulatto Slaves, has been attended with Circumstances which not only deprived them of the common Blessings that they were by Nature entitled to, but has cast them into the deepest Afflictions by an unnatural Separation and Sale of Husband and Wife from each other, and from their Children; an Injury the greatness of which can only be conceived, by supposing that we were in the same unhappy Case. In Justice therefore to Persons so unhappily circumstanced and who, having no Prospect before them whereon they may rest their Sorrows and their hopes have no reasonable Inducement to render that Service to Society, which they otherwise might; and also ingrateful Commemoration of our own happy Deliverance, from that State of unconditional Submission, to which we were doomed by the Tyranny of Britain.

Be it enacted and it is hereby enacted by the Representatives of the Freemen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met and by the Authority of the same, That all Persons, as well Negroes, and Mulattos, as others, who shall be born within this State, from and after the Passing of this Act, shall not be deemed and considered as Servants for Life or Slaves; and that all Servitude for Life or Slavery of Children in Consequence of the Slavery of their Mothers, in the Case of all Children born within this State from and after the passing of this Act as aforesaid, shall be, an hereby is, utterly taken away, extinguished and for ever abolished.

Provided always and be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That every Negroe and Mulatto Child born within this State after the passing of this Act as aforesaid, who would in Case this Act had not been made, have been born a Servant for Years or life or a Slave, shall be deemed to be and shall be, by Virtue of this Act the Servant of such person or his or her Assigns, who would in such Case have been entitled to the Service of such Child until such Child shall attain unto the Age of twenty eight Years, in the manner and on the Conditions whereon Servants bound by Indenture for four Years are or may be retained and holden; and shall be liable to like Correction and punishment, and intitled to like Relief in case he or she be evilly treated by his or her master or Mistress; and to like Freedom dues and other Privileges as Servants bound by Indenture for Four Years are or may be intitled unless the Person to whom the Service of any such Child Shall belong, shall abandon his or her Claim to the same, in which Case the Overseers of the Poor of the City Township or District, respectively where such Child shall be so abandoned, shall by Indenture bind out every Child so abandoned as an Apprentice for a Time not exceeding the Age herein before limited for the Service of such Children.

And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That every Person who is or shall be the Owner of any Negroe or Mulatto Slave or Servant for life or till the Age of thirty one Years, now within this State, or his lawful Attorney shall on or before the said first day of November next, deliver or cause to be delivered in Writing to the Clerk of the Peace of the County or to the Clerk of the Court of Record of the City of Philadelphia, in which he or she shall respectively inhabit, the Name and Sirname and Occupation or Profession of such Owner, and the Name of the County and Township District or Ward where he or she resideth, and also the Name and Names of any such Slave and Slaves and Servant and Servants for Life or till the Age of thirty one Years together with their Ages and Sexes severally and respectively set forth and annexed, by such Person owned or statedly employed, and then being within this State in order to ascertain and distinguish the Slaves and Servants for Life and Years till the Age of thirty one Years within this State who shall be such on the said first day of November next, from all other persons, which particulars shall by said Clerk of the Sessions and Clerk of said City Court be entered in Books to be provided for that Purpose by the said Clerks; and that no Negroe or Mulatto now within this State shall from and after the said first day of November by deemed a slave or Servant for life or till the Age of thirty one Years unless his or her name shall be entered as aforesaid on such Record except such Negroe and Mulatto Slaves and Servants as are hereinafter excepted; the said Clerk to be entitled to a fee of Two Dollars for each Slave or Servant so entered as aforesaid, from the Treasurer of the County to be allowed to him in his Accounts.

Provided always, That any Person in whom the Ownership or Right to the Service of any Negro or Mulatto shall be vested at the passing of this Act, other than such as are herein before excepted, his or her Heirs, Executors, Administrators and Assigns, and all and every of them severally Shall be liable to the Overseers of the Poor of the City, Township or District to which any such Negroe or Mulatto shall become chargeable, for such necessary Expence, with Costs of Suit thereon, as such Overseers may be put to through the Neglect of the Owner, Master or Mistress of such Negroe or Mulatto, notwithstanding the Name and other descriptions of such Negroe or Mulatto shall not be entered and recorded as aforesaid; unless his or her Master or Owner shall before such Slave or Servant attain his or her twenty eighth Year execute and record in the proper County, a deed or Instrument securing to such Slave or Servant his or her Freedom.

And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That the Offences and Crimes of Negroes and Mulattos as well as Slaves and Servants and Freemen, shall be enquired of, adjudged, corrected and punished in like manner as the Offences and Crimes of the other Inhabitants of this State are and shall be enquired of adjudged, corrected and punished, and not otherwise except that a Slave shall not be admitted to bear Witness agaist [sic] a Freeman.

And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid That in all Cases wherein Sentence of Death shall be pronounced against a Slave, the Jury before whom he or she shall be tried shall appraise and declare the Value of such Slave, and in Case Such Sentence be executed, the Court shall make an Order on the State Treasurer payable to the Owner for the same and for the Costs of Prosecution, but in Case of a Remission or Mitigation for the Costs only.

And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid That the Reward for taking up runaway and absconding Negroe and Mulatto Slaves and Servants and the Penalties for enticing away, dealing with, or harbouring, concealing or employing Negroe and Mulatto Slaves and Servants shall be the same, and shall be recovered in like manner, as in Case of Servants bound for Four Years.

And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no Man or Woman of any Nation or Colour, except the Negroes or Mulattoes who shall be registered as aforesaid shall at any time hereafter be deemed, adjudged or holden, within the Territories of this Commonwealth, as Slaves or Servants for Life, but as freemen and Freewomen; and except the domestic Slaves attending upon Delegates in Congress from the other American States, foreign Ministers and Consuls, and persons passing through or sojourning in this State, and not becoming resident therein; and Seamen employed in Ships, not belonging to any Inhabitant of this State nor employed in any Ship owned by any such Inhabitant, Provided such domestic Slaves be not aliened or sold to any Inhabitant, nor (except in the Case of Members of Congress, foreign Ministers and Consuls) retained in this State longer than six Months.

Provided always and be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That this Act nor any thing in it contained shall not give any Relief or Shelter to any absconding or Runaway Negroe or Mulatto Slave or Servant, who has absented himself or shall absent himself from his or her Owner, Master or Mistress, residing in any other State or Country, but such Owner, Master or Mistress, shall have like Right and Aid to demand, claim and take away his Slave or Servant, as he might have had in Case this Act had not been made. And that all Negroe and Mulatto Slaves, now owned, and heretofore resident in this State, who have absented themselves, or been clandestinely carried away, or who may be employed abroad as Seamen, and have not returned or been brought back to their Owners, Masters or Mistresses, before the passing of this Act may within five Years be registered as effectually, as is ordered by this Act concerning those who are now within the State, on producing such Slave, before any two Justices of the Peace, and satisfying the said Justices by due Proof, of the former Residence, absconding, taking away, or Absence of such Slave as aforesaid; who thereupon shall direct and order the said Slave to be entered on the Record as aforesaid.

And Whereas Attempts may be made to evade this Act, by introducing into this State, Negroes and Mulattos, bound by Covenant to serve for long and unreasonable Terms of Years, if the same be not prevented.

Be it therefore enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no Covenant of personal Servitude or Apprenticeship whatsoever shall be valid or binding on a Negroe or Mulatto for a longer Time than Seven Years; unless such Servant or Apprentice were at the Commencement of such Servitude or Apprenticeship under the Age of Twenty one Years; in which Case such Negroe or Mulatto may be holden as a Servant or Apprentice respectively, according to the Covenant, as the Case shall be, until he or she shall attain the Age of twenty eight Years but no longer.

And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That an Act of Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania passed in the Year one thousand seven hundred and five, intitled “An Act for the Trial of Negroes;” and another Act of Assembly of the said Province passed in the Year one thousand seven hundred and twenty five intitled “An Act for “the better regulating of Negroes in this Province;” and another Act of Assembly of the said Province passed in the Year one thousand seven hundred and sixty one intitled “An Act for laying a Duty on Negroe and Mulatto Slaves imported into this Province” and also another Act of Assembly of the said Province, passed in the Year one thousand seven hundred and seventy three, intitled “An Act for making perpetual An Act for laying a duty on Negroe and Mulatto “Slaves imported into this Province and for laying an additional “Duty on said Slaves;” shall be and are hereby repealed annulled and made void.

John Bayard, Speaker

Enacted into a Law at Philadelphia on Wednesday the first day of March, Anno Domini One thousand seven hundred Eighty
Thomas Paine, Clerk of the General Assembly

Other states then followed Pennsylvania’s lead, expanding upon it by enacting less conservative measures. During a series of judicial reviews which were conducted in Massachusetts between 1781 and 1783, for example, state leaders there declared that slavery was incompatible with their state’s new constitution.

These various laws, while not perfect, did gradually achieve their aim of reducing slavery in northern states, as did 1807 legislation by the U.S. Congress which made it a crime for Americans to engage in international slave trade (effective January 1, 1808), and which ultimately reduced shipments of slaves from Africa to the United States by ninety percent. With respect to Pennsylvania, specifically, “the number of slaves dropped from 3,737 to 1,706” between 1790 and 1800, according to PHMC historians, “and by 1810 to 795. In 1840, there still were 64 slaves in the state, but by 1850 there were none.”

Meanwhile, Quakers and others active in abolition movements in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia achieved some success by pressuring slaveholders to agree to free slaves via wills and other methods of manumission so that, by 1860, more than ninety percent of black men, women, and children in Delaware and nearly fifty percent in Maryland were free.

Despite these efforts, however, the ugliness of slavery continued to persist — a fact made all too clear in newspapers and other publications of the period, including via William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. But it was, perhaps, the nation’s fugitive slave laws which finally made plain slavery’s seemingly unshakeable grip on the country. Passed by the U.S. Congress, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that all escaped slaves, regardless of where they were captured, be returned to their masters — even if those escaped slaves had made it to safety via the Underground Railroad or other methods and had been given sanctuary by abolitionists in states where slaves had been permanently freed. In response, two years later, Harriet Beecher Stowe released her landmark, anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

After the U.S. Congress set the stage to reverse decades of anti-slavery progress with its passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, abolitionists and other opponents of slavery banded together to form the Republican Party, which held its first national convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 22, 1856. Initially proposing a system which would contain slavery until each individual state where the practice still existed could be forced to eradicate it, the Republican Party adopted a harder, anti-slavery line in 1860 after the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States.

Following the secession of multiple states from the Union, beginning with South Carolina on December 20, 1860, and the subsequent fall of Fort Sumter to Confederate States Army troops in mid-April 1861, the United States descended into a state of civil war with its federal government issuing a call for regular and volunteer troops to preserve the Union. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln formally added the abolition of slavery as one of the federal government’s stated war goals with his release of the preliminary version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which decared that, effective January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

But it would take more than two years for that hoped-for dream to truly begin and nearly 150 years for it to be completely embraced by a divided nation.

THE 13TH AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION (THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY)

“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

On January 31, 1865, the United States Congress approved the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery in America. President Abraham Lincoln added his signature on February 1, 1865. (U.S. National Archives, public domain).

1864:

April 8, 1864: The United States Senate passes the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by a vote of 38 to 6.

1865:

January 31, 1865: The U.S. House passes the 13th Amendment by a vote of 119 to 56.

February 1, 1865: President Abraham Lincoln approves the Joint Resolution of Congress. According to historians at The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, even though the U.S. Constitution does not require presidential signatures on amendments, Lincoln chooses to add his signature, making the 13th Amendment “the only constitutional amendment to be later ratified that was signed by a president.” The resolution is also ratified on this day by the Illinois Legislature, making Illinois the first state to ratify the amendment. (According to news reports, the Illinois Legislature actually ratified the amendment in Springfield, Illinois before Lincoln added his signature to the document in Washington, D.C.)

February 2, 1865: Rhode Island becomes the second state to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Michigan’s legislature also ratifies the amendment on this day.

February 3, 1865: Maryland, New York, and West Virginia ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

February 6, 1865: Missouri ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

February 7, 1865: Maine, Kansas, and Massachusetts ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

February 8, 1865: Pennsylvania ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution while Delaware initially rejects ratification of the amendment. (Delaware’s legislature will later approve it in 1901. See below for details.)

February 9, 1865: Virginia ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

February 10, 1865: Ohio ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

February 15–16, 1865: Louisiana ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on February 15 or 16 while Indiana and Nevada both ratify the amendment on February 16, 1865.

February 23, 1865: Minnesota ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

February 24, 1865: Wisconsin ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution while Kentucky rejects ratification. (Kentucky’s legislature will later approve ratification in 1976. See below for details.)

March 9, 1865: Vermont’s governor approves the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

March 16, 1865: New Jersey initially rejects ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (The state’s legislature will later approve it in 1866. See below for details.)

April 7, 1865: Tennessee ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

April 14, 1865: Arkansas ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

May 4, 1865: Connecticut ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

June 30, 1865: New Hampshire ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

November 13, 1865: South Carolina ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

December 2, 1865: Alabama’s provisional governor approves the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution while Mississippi rejects ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Mississippi’s certified ratification of the amendment will not be achieved until 148 years later. See below for detail.)

December 4, 1865: North Carolina ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

December 6, 1865: The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is officially ratified when Georgia becomes the 27th state to approve the amendment. (America has a total of 36 states at this time in its history.) With this day’s formal abolition of slavery, four million Americans are permanently freed.

December 11, 1865: Oregon ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

December 15, 1865: California ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

December 18, 1865: United States Secretary of State William H. Seward certifies that the 13th Amendment has become a valid part of the U.S. Constitution.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State of the United States,
To all to whom these presents may come, greeting:

Dec. 18, 1865, Preamble: Know ye, that whereas the congress of the United States on the 1st of February last passed a resolution which is in the words following, namely:

“A resolution submitting to the legislatures of the several states a proposition to amend the Constitution of the United States.”

“Resolved by the Senate and House of the United States of America in Congress assembled, (two thirds of both houses occurring,) That the following article be proposed to the legislatures of the several states as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which, when ratified by three fourths of said legislatures, shall be valid, to all intents and purposes, as a part of the said constitution, namely:

“ARTICLE XIII.

“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

“Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

And whereas it appears from official documents on file in this department that the amendment to the Constitution of the United States proposed, as aforesaid, has been ratified by the legislatures of the State of Illinois, Rhode Island, Michigan, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, Maine, Kansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Nevada, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, Tennessee, Arkansas, Connecticut, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia; in all twenty-seven states;

And whereas the whole number of states in the United States is thirty-six; and whereas the before specially-named states, whose legislatures have ratified the said proposed amendment, constitute three fourths of the whole number of states in the United States;

Now, therefore, be it known, that I, WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State of the United States, by virtue and in pursuance of the second section of the act of congress, approved the twentieth of April, eighteen hundred and eighteen, entitled “An act to provide for the publication of the laws of the United States and for other purposes,” do hereby certify that the amendment aforesaid has become valid, to all intents and purposes, as a part of the Constitution of the United States.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the Department of State to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this eighteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-five, and of the Independence of the United States of America the ninetieth.

WILLIAM H. SEWARD.
Secretary of State.

December 28, 1865: Florida ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

1866:

January 15, 1866: Iowa becomes the 31st state to approve the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (alternate date January 17, 1866).

January 23, 1866: New Jersey ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

1868:

June 9, 1868: Florida reaffirms its ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as part of its legislature’s approval of a new state constitution.

1870:

February 17, 1870: Texas ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

1901:

February 12, 1901: Delaware ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

1976:

March 18, 1976: Kentucky ratifies the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

2013:

February 7, 2013: Mississippi becomes the final state to achieve certified ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

* Note: According to 2013 news reports by staff at ABC and CBS News, although Mississippi legislators finally voted for ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1995, they never notified the U.S. Archivist. As a result, their effort to formally abolish slavery was still not official – an error which was discovered in 2012 by Ranjan Batra, an immigrant from India and professor of Neurobiology and Anatomical sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. After enlisting the help of a medical center colleague (long-time Mississippi resident Ken Sullivan) in uncovering documentation of the oversight, Batra then alerted Mississippi’s Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who finally rectified the error by sending the U.S. Office of the Federal Register a copy of Mississippi’s 1995 resolution on January 30, 2013. When that resolution was published in the Federal Register on February 7, 2013, Mississippi’s abolition of slavery finally became official.

 

Sources:

1. An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery — March 1, 1780.” Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, retrieved online January 31, 2019.

2. 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery,” in “America’s Historical Documents.Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, retrieved online January 31, 2019.

3. Condon, Stephanie. After 148 Years, Mississippi Finally Ratifies 13th Amendment Which Banned Slavery. New York, New York: CBS News, February 18, 2013.

4. Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Idealogy of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. Cary, North Carolina: Oxford University Press, April 1995.

5. Founding of Pennsylvania Abolition Society,” in “Africans in America.” Boston, Massachusetts: WGBH (PBS), retrieved online January 31, 2019.

6. Head, David. Slave Smuggling by Foreign Privateers: The Illegal Slave Trade and the Geopolitics of the Early Republic“, in Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 433-462. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, Fall 2013.

7. Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619–1877, pp. 78, 81–82. New York, New York: Hill and Wang (Macmillan), 1994.

8. Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery,” in “Massachusetts Court System.” Boston, Massachusetts: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Mass.gov, retrieved online January 31, 2019.

9. McClelland, Edward. Illinois: First State to Ratify 13th Amendment. Chicago, Illinois: NBC 5-Chicago, November 16, 2012.

10. No. 5: William H. Seward, Secretary of State of the United States (certification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), in “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875: Statutes at Large,” in “American Memory.” Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, retrieved online January 31, 2019.

11. Oakes, James. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865. New York, New York and London, United Kingdom: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013.

12. Ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment, 1866: A Spotlight on a Primary Source by Iowa General Assembly,” in “History Now.” New York, New York: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, retrieved online January 31, 2019.

13. U.S. Senate Document No. 112-9 (2013), 112th Congress, 2nd Session: The Constitution of the United States Of America Analysis And Interpretation Centennial Edition Interim Edition: Analysis Of Cases Decided By The Supreme Court Of The United States To June 26, 2013s,” p. 30 (of large PDF file). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, retrieved online January 31, 2019.

14. Waldron, Ben. Mississippi Officially Abolishes Slavery, Ratifies 13th Amendment. New York, New York: ABC News, February 18, 2013.

 

 

 

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Faces of the 47th Project Honors History-Making Civil War Soldiers from Pennsylvania

First Lieutenant William Wallace Geety, Co. H, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, c. 1864-1865.

A tantalizing new video released by 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story just opened an important new portal to the 19th century for Civil War enthusiasts, teachers, students, and genealogists.

Faces of the 47th is part of a larger, ongoing initiative to document and raise public awareness about the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry – the only regiment from the Keystone State to fight in the Union’s 1864 Red River Campaign  across Louisiana. The video presents the photographic and illustrated images of more than two dozen men who fought with the all-volunteer unit between 1861 and 1865.

“Each one of these images holds the potential to help family history researchers feel closer to their Civil War-era ancestors while also enabling teachers, students and Civil War enthusiasts to deepen their connections to one of the most painful chapters in the American narrative,” explains Laurie Snyder, managing editor for the project. “By ‘putting faces to the names’ on military muster rolls, we’re bringing history to life while also paying tribute to those who fought to eradicate slavery and preserve our nation’s union.”

The photo digitization project received early support from Thomas MacEntee, founder of High-Definition Genealogy, via The Genealogy Fairy™ program, which enabled Snyder to locate and digitize photographs of key members of the regiment. Among the images preserved in this initial collection are the faces of a regimental chaplain, musicians, prisoners of war (POWs), military surgeons, and officers and enlisted men who were grievously wounded or killed in combat, as well as several men who became inventors, leading business executives and elected officials in and beyond Pennsylvania after the war.

George Dillwyn John (third from left; formerly, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers), Grand Army of the Republic gathering, Will Robinson Post, Illinois, c. 1926.

“At the time I applied for the grant, there were hundreds of photographs tucked away in public libraries, historical societies, universities, and private family history collections from Maine to California and Michigan to Louisiana. Most had not yet been digitized and might have been lost for all time had Thomas MacEntee not provided the support he did when he did,” said Snyder. “More work still needs to be done, of course, because there are photos still not yet scanned, but the project took more than two dozen giant steps forward with just that one grant from Thomas. He’s a hero in my book.”

Other significant support for the project has been provided by the Burrowes and Wasserman families.

About the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers

Joseph Eugene Walter, Regimental Band, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, c. 1861.

Recruited primarily at community gathering places in their respective home towns, the soldiers who served with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry were primarily men of German heritage whose families still spoke German or “Pennsylvania Dutch” more than a century after their ancestors emigrated from Germany in search of religious and political freedom. Still others were recent immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Cuba. Formerly enslaved black men who had been freed by the regiment from plantations in South Carolina and Louisiana were added to regimental rosters in 1862 and 1864.

In addition to fighting in the battles of Sabine Cross Roads/Mansfield, Pleasant Hill and Monett’s Ferry/Cane River during the Red River Campaign, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers also engaged in the defense of Washington, D.C. in 1861 and again in 1865, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln; the capture of Saint John’s Bluff, Florida and Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina (1862); the garrisoning of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas, Florida (1863); Union Major-General Philip Sheridan’s tide-turning Shenandoah Valley Campaign (1864), including the battles of Berryville, Opequon, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek; and provost (military police) and Reconstruction duties in Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina (1865). Most were finally released from duty when the regiment formally mustered out on Christmas Day in 1865.

Learn More and Support

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President Abraham Lincoln’s Final Public Address (11 April 1865)

This 1865 photograph of President Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner is believed by historians to be the final photo taken of Lincoln (1865, U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).

We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained. In the midst of this, however, He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated. Nor must those whose harder part gives us the cause of rejoicing, be overlooked. Their honors must not be parcelled out with others. I myself, was near the front, and had the high pleasure of transmitting much of the good news to you; but no part of the honor, for plan or execution, is mine. To Gen. Grant, his skilful officers, and brave men, all belongs. The gallant Navy stood ready, but was not in reach to take active part.

By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority—reconstruction—which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike the case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.

As a general rule, I abstain from reading the reports of attacks upon myself, wishing not to be provoked by that to which I can not properly offer an answer. In spite of this precaution, however, it comes to my knowledge that I am much censured for some supposed agency in setting up, and seeking to sustain, the new State Government of Louisiana. In this I have done just so much as, and no more than, the public knows. In the Annual Message of Dec. 1863 and accompanying Proclamation, I presented a plan of re-construction (as the phrase goes) which, I promised, if adopted by any State, should be acceptable to, and sustained by, the Executive government of the nation. I distinctly stated that this was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable; and I also distinctly protested that the Executive claimed no right to say when, or whether members should be admitted to seats in Congress from such States. This plan was, in advance, submitted to the then Cabinet, and distinctly approved by every member of it. One of them suggested that I should then, and in that connection, apply the Emancipation Proclamation to the theretofore excepted parts of Virginia and Louisiana; that I should drop the suggestion about apprenticeship for freed-people, and that I should omit the protest against my own power, in regard to the admission of members to Congress; but even he approved every part and parcel of the plan which has since been employed or touched by the action of Louisiana. The new constitution of Louisiana, declaring emancipation for the whole State, practically applies the Proclamation to the part previously excepted. It does not adopt apprenticeship for freed-people; and it is silent, as it could not well be otherwise, about the admission of members to Congress. So that, as it applies to Louisiana, every member of the Cabinet fully approved the plan. The Message went to Congress, and I received many commendations of the plan, written and verbal; and not a single objection to it, from any professed emancipationist, came to my knowledge, until after the news reached Washington that the people of Louisiana had begun to move in accordance with it. From about July 1862, I had corresponded with different persons, supposed to be interested, seeking a reconstruction of a State government for Louisiana. When the Message of 1863, with the plan before mentioned, reached New-Orleans, Gen. Banks wrote me that he was confident the people, with his military co-operation, would reconstruct, substantially on that plan. I wrote him, and some of them to try it; they tried it, and the result is known. Such only has been my agency in getting up the Louisiana government. As to sustaining it, my promise is out, as before stated. But, as bad promises are better broken than kept, I shall treat this as a bad promise, and break it, whenever I shall be convinced that keeping it is adverse to the public interest. But I have not yet been so convinced.

I have been shown a letter on this subject, supposed to be an able one, in which the writer expresses regret that my mind has not seemed to be definitely fixed on the question whether the seceded States, so called, are in the Union or out of it. It would perhaps, add astonishment to his regret, were he to learn that since I have found professed Union men endeavoring to make that question, I have purposely forborne any public expression upon it. As appears to me that question has not been, nor yet is, a practically material one, and that any discussion of it, while it thus remains practically immaterial, could have no effect other than the mischievous one of dividing our friends. As yet, whatever it may hereafter become, that question is bad, as the basis of a controversy, and good for nothing at all—a merely pernicious abstraction.

We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier, to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these states have even been out of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these states and the Union; and each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it.

The amount of constituency, so to to [sic] speak, on which the new Louisiana government rests, would be more satisfactory to all, if it contained fifty, thirty, or even twenty thousand, instead of only about twelve thousand, as it does. It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers. Still the question is not whether the Louisiana government, as it stands, is quite all that is desirable. The question is “Will it be wiser to take it as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it?” “Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State Government?”

Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state—committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants—and they ask the nations recognition, and it’s assistance to make good their committal. Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them. We in effect say to the white men “You are worthless, or worse—we will neither help you, nor be helped by you.” To the blacks we say “This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.” If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have, so far, been unable to perceive it. If, on the contrary, we recognize, and sustain the new government of Louisiana the converse of all this is made true. We encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success. The colored man too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end. Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them? Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it? Again, if we reject Louisiana, we also reject one vote in favor of the proposed amendment to the national constitution. To meet this proposition, it has been argued that no more than three fourths of those States which have not attempted secession are necessary to validly ratify the amendment. I do not commit myself against this, further than to say that such a ratification would be questionable, and sure to be persistently questioned; while a ratification by three fourths of all the States would be unquestioned and unquestionable.

I repeat the question. “Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining or by discarding her new State Government?

What has been said of Louisiana will apply generally to other States. And yet so great peculiarities pertain to each state; and such important and sudden changes occur in the same state; and, withal, so new and unprecedented is the whole case, that no exclusive, and inflexible plan can safely be prescribed as to details and colatterals. Such exclusive, and inflexible plan, would surely become a new entanglement. Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.

In the present ‘situation’ as the phrase goes, it may be my duty to make some new announcement to the people of the South. I am considering, and shall not fail to act, when satisfied that action will be proper.

 

Annotation (per Roy Basler, et. al., editors):

[1]   AD-P, ISLA. On April 11, Salmon P. Chase had written Lincoln at length about reconstruction:

“I am very anxious about the future: and most about the principles which are to govern reconstruction for as these principles are sound or unsound so will be the work & its results. . . .

“And first as to Virginia.

“By the action of every branch of the Government we are committed to the recognition & maintenance of the State organization of which Governor Pierpont is the head. You know all the facts. . . . There will be a pressure for the recognition of the rebel organization on condition of profession of loyalty. It will be far easier and wiser, in my judgment, to stand by the loyal organization already recognized.

“And next as to the other rebel States:

“The easiest & safest way seems to me to be the enrollment of the loyal citizens without regard to complexion and encouragement & support to them in the reorganization of State Governments under constitutions securing suffrage to all citizens. . . . This you know has long been my opinion. . . .

“This way is recommended by its simplicity, facility & above all, justice. It will be, hereafter, counted equally a crime & a folly if the colored loyalists of the rebel states shall be left to the control of restored rebels, not likely, in that case, to be either wise or just, until taught both wisdom and justice by new calamities.

“The application of this principle to Louisiana is made somewhat difficult by the organization which has already taken place: but happily the Constitution enables the Legislature to extend the right of suffrage. . . .

“The same result can be assured in Arkansas by an amendment of the state constitution; or what would be better, I think, by a new Convention . . . without distinction of color. To all the other states the general principle may be easily applied. . . .'” (DLC-RTL).

 

On the morning after Lincoln’s speech, Chase wrote again:

“The American of this morning contains your speech of last evening. Seeing that you say something on the subject of my letter to you yesterday—reconstruction—, & refer, though without naming me, to the suggestions I made in relation to the Amnesty Proclamation, when you brought it before the Heads of Departments, I will ask your permission to add some observations to what I have already written.

“I recollect the suggestions you mention; my impression is that they were in writing. There was another which you do not mention and which, I think, was not in writing. It is distinct in my memory; though doubtless forgotten by you. It was an objection to the restriction of participation in reorganization to persons having the qualifications of voters under the laws of their several states just before rebellion.

“Ever since questions of reconstruction have been talked about, it has been my opinion that the colored loyalists ought to be allowed to participate in it and it was because of this opinion that I was anxious to have this question left open. I did not however say much about the restriction. I was the only one who expressed a wish for its omission; & I did not desire to seem pertinacious.

“You will remember, doubtless, that the first order ever issued for enrollment with a view to reconstruction went to General Shepley & directed the enrollment of all loyal citizens; and I suppose that, since the opinion of Attorney General Bates, no one, connected with your administration, has questioned the citizenship of free colored men more than that of free white men. The restriction in the amnesty proclamation operated as a revocation of the order to General Shepley:—but, as I understood you not to be wedded to any particular plan of reconstruction, I hoped & believed that reflection & observation would probably satisfy you that the restriction should not be adhered to.

“I fully sympathized with your desire for the restoration of the Union by the change of rebel slave States into Union free States; and was willing, if I could not get exactly the plan I thought best, to take the plan you thought best, & to trust the future for modifications. I welcomed, therefore, with joy the prospects of good results from the cooperation of General Banks with the free state men of Louisiana. I think General Banks’ error, & I have said so to him, was in not acting through instead of over the Free State Committee. This Committee had already shown itself disposed to a degree of liberality towards the colored people quite remarkable at that time. They had admitted delegates from the creole colored population into their free State Convention, & had evinced a readiness to admit intelligent colored citizens of that class to the rights of suffrage. I have no doubt that great & satisfactory progress would have been made in the same direction had not the work been taken out of their hands. This created the impression that the advocates of general suffrage were to be treated with disfavor by the representatives of the Government. Discouragement & disinterest were the natural consequences.

“For one I was glad of all the good that was done; and, naturally, wanted more. So when I came to Washington last winter I saw Gen Banks: and, being now more deeply than ever persuaded of the necessity of universal suffrage, I begged him to write himself & to induce the Senators & Representatives elect from Louisiana to write to members of the Legislature and urge them to exercise their power under the constitution by passing an act extending suffrage to colored citizens. I knew that many of our best men in and out of Congress had become thoroughly convinced of the impolicy and injustice of allowing representation in Congress to States which had been in rebellion and were not yet prepared to concede equal political rights to all loyal citizens. They felt that if such representation should be allowed & such states reinstated in all their former rights as loyal members of the Union, the colored population would be practically abandoned to the disposition of the white population, with every probability against them; and this, they believed would be equally unjust & dangerous.

“I shared their sentiment & was therefore extremely desirous that General Banks should take the action I urged upon him. I thought indeed that he concurred, mainly, in my views, & would to some extent at least act upon them. I must have been mistaken, for I never heard that he did anything in that direction.

“I know you attach much importance to the admission of Louisiana, or rather to the recognition of her right to representation in Congress as a loyal State in the Union. If I am not misinformed there is nothing in the way except the indisposition of her Legislature to give satisfactory proof of loyalty by a sufficient guaranty of safety & justice to colored citizens through the extension to loyal colored men of the right of suffrage. Why not, then, as almost every loyal man concurs with you as to the desirableness of that recognition, take the shortest road to it by causing every proper representation to be made to the Louisiana Legislature of the importance of such extension.

“I most earnestly wish you could have read the New Orleans papers for the last few months. Your duties have not allowed it. I have read them a good deal—quite enough to be satisfied that, if you had read what I have, your feelings of humanity & justice would not let you rest till all loyalists are made equal in the right of self protection by suffrage.

“Once I should have been, if not satisfied, reasonably contented by suffrage for the more intelligent & for those who have been soldiers; now I am convinced that universal suffrage is demanded by sound policy and impartial justice alike.

“I have written too much already & will not trouble you with my reasons for this conclusion. I shall return to Washington in a day or two & perhaps it will not be disagreeable to you to have the whole subject talked over. . . .” (DLC-RTL).

 

Sources:

1. Basler, Roy P., editor, et. al. Collected works. The Abraham Lincoln Association/Springfield, Illinois, vol. 8. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

2. Masur, Louis P. Lincoln’s Last Speech. New York, New York: Opinionator: Disunion, The New York Times, 10 April 2015.

 

 

A Voyage North and a Memorable Encounter with Abraham Lincoln

Pres. Abraham Lincoln at Fort Stevens, July 1864 (public domain illustration).

Pres. Abraham Lincoln at Fort Stevens, 12 July 1864 (public domain illustration).

With the Union’s Red River Campaign across Louisiana finally over by June of 1864, their supplies replenished, their dead buried, and the traumatic injuries of their wounded on the mend by early July, it was time for the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers to move on. Still part of the 2nd Brigade of Brigadier General William Dwight’s 1st Division in Brigadier General William H. Emory’s 19th U.S. Army Corps, Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I received orders on the 4th of July to leave Companies B, G and K behind and march for Algiers, Louisiana. Boarding the U.S. Steamer McClellan there on Thursday, 7 July 1864, the bulk of 47th Pennsylvanians then sailed away from the docks at 1 p.m.

According to a diary entry made that day by Corporal George R. Nichols of E Company, the regiment was forced to leave behind those three companies because the McClellan simply did not have enough space for the entire regiment. Noting that they had been ordered to begin packing at 6 a.m. that morning for the march to the steamer, he said “about Nine hundred men was Shoved on her.”

Note: Left behind in Morganza, Louisiana under the command of F Company Captain Henry S. Harte to await additional transportation, Companies B, G, and K sailed later that same month aboard the Blackstone, made a brief stop at Bermuda Hundred, arrived in the Washington, D.C. area on 28 July 1864, and reconnected with the remainder of the regiment and the 19th Corps three days later in Maryland at Monocacy.

Carrying sealed orders with instructions that they be opened and read only after the McClellan had traveled “beyond the bar,” Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I sailed in the dark – figuratively and literally. “The passage down the Mississippi was mostly at night, so I am unable to give you a description of it. An expedition was on the move but what point no one outside of headquarters was able to tell. It was a secret move,” wrote C Company Musician Henry D. Wharton to his hometown newspaper. He and his superiors were among the many who speculated that the regiment was headed for new duties near Mobile, Alabama which would place them under the command of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Note: This speculation proved to be completely off the mark, and would result in the utterly incorrect “documentation” by numerous genealogists, historians and news reporters which persists even today that the 47th Pennsylvania had participated in Sherman’s March to the Sea and the burning of Atlanta when the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were nowhere near Sherman and his troops during those incidents.

The initial secrecy was a smart move, observed Wharton, “for the destination of former expeditions was known weeks before embarking, and by the time the troops reached the point to which they were ordered, the rebs were ready to receive them.” New Orleans, he added, was “filled with traitors and spies, ready to do the bidding of Jefferson D.,” making it “necessary that the greatest precaution be used when anything extraordinary is going on.”

After obtaining a new pilot for the steamer at Pilottown, the McClellan continued on. Once the pilot had helped the steamer to clear the bar, the orders were indeed finally opened and, according to Captain Gobin, “the consternation was great when it was discovered we were bound for the Army of the Potomac.”

U.S. Steamer McClellan_Alfred Waud_c. 1860-1865

U.S. Steamer McClellan (Alfred Waud, c. 1860s, U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).

Still steaming for Washington, the 47th Pennsylvanians lost another of their brotherhood when, on 8 July, Private Jonas Snyder of I Company died from consumption (tuberculosis) and related complications. The 45-year-old Carbon County native was buried at sea with full military honors – sixty miles off America’s coast in the Gulf of Mexico. In recounting the ceremony for Private Snyder, Wharton noted that:

His body was prepared for burial by nicely sewing it up in blankets, with weights attached to make it sink. The funeral was conducted by Chaplain Rodrock, who read the beautiful sea service from the prayer book of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The ‘Flag of our Union’ was at half mast, the boat stopped, and as the sun was hiding in the west, the body was launched into the sea, sinking to rise no more, until the great day comes when the soul must give an account for the ‘deeds’ done in the body.

As the 47th Pennsylvanians grieved their latest loss, the hearts of citizens in Washington City were also troubled as General Jubal Early’s Confederate troops marched their way. According to historian Lewis Schmidt, as the first members of the 19th Corps began arriving at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, “their orders were changed and they were sent on to the Capital.”

At 7 a.m. on Sunday, 10 July, the 47th Pennsylvanians began rounding the tip of Florida, sailing past Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, and on past Key West at 2 p.m. An intense yellow fever epidemic among the locals and remaining soldiers stationed there eliminated all hopes of a short sojourn at Fort Taylor.

According to Captain Gobin, “Pleasant weather attended the voyage,” and the McClellan finally steamed into Hampton Roads, Virginia on the afternoon of 11 July. But before the ship’s anchor could even hit the water, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were receiving new orders – directed to march for Washington, which they did the next morning. Little did they know they would soon have yet another memorable story to be passed down to their grandchildren – and their grandchildren’s grandchildren.

An Encounter with Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln Arriving on Horseback at Fort Stevens, 8 July 1864 (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Nespaper, 13 August 1864, public domain).

Lincoln Arrives on Horseback at Fort Stevens, 12 July 1864 (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 13 August 1864, public domain).

In an essay penned in 1907 for the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, The Honorable John Peter Shindel Gobin (now a former Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania), recalled how the majority of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers suddenly realized they were seeing Abraham Lincoln in the flesh during the summer of 1864 – and how an incident that same day – one which “might have been exceedingly serious in the prosecution of the war” – nearly took the life of their beloved Commander-in-Chief as it brought Lincoln “under the actual fire of the enemy in their attack upon Fort Stevens, July 12th, 1864”:

We landed at the Navy Yard, were met by an officer with instructions to move out at once, leaving a detail to look after baggage and horses. Up the avenue and out Seventh St. we at once proceeded, and at intervals were met by handsomely uniformed officers, who urged us to hurry up double quick.

Officers and men moving along discussed the cause of all this, but with no intimation of trouble or information or instructions of what was needed until we heard the sound of artillery and later of musketry.

There appeared to be no unusual commotion in Washington – few people on the streets – nothing to indicate the presence of an enemy, until the sound of firing was heard. The day was very hot the column marched along until Fort Stevens was reached, when, to the great surprise of every one, it was evident that a fight was going on at the front. We halted, and then began the inquiry, ‘What’s up? Are those Johnnies? Where’s Grant?’

Fort Stevens, explained Gobin, “was an earthwork in a line of fortifications built for the defense of Washington. It was a strong earthwork, and apparently easily protected. The guns were mounted en-barbette and were all of heavy caliber.” While waiting for new orders, members of the 47th struck up a conversation with an officer from another Union regiment and were told, “’Old Abe’s in the Fort.’”

This was so startling, as it was repeated from file to file, that everybody made a rush to get near enough to see him. There was no mistaking him. His tall figure and high hat made him prominent, and I think every man of the regiment had a look at him.

Our Corps badge resembled that of the 5th Corps, and to many inquiries, ‘Do you belong to the 5th Corps?’ the answer was, ‘No, to the 19th.’ Considerable curiosity was evinced to know where the 19th Corps was from, and great surprise was expressed as to how we had gotten there from New Orleans, as it was stated, just in time.

In the meantime, numerous officers had been circulating around, various orders had been received, but nobody seemed to know what to do with us, and the regiment stood awaiting definite instructions.

At last it came, to move out to the left and deploy, move forward and connect with Bidwell’s Brigade. As we came into line and moved out, a young staff officer rode down the line, shouting, ‘You are going into action under the eye of the President! He wants to see how you can fight.’ The answer was a shout and a rush. We met with but little opposition. A sparse picket line of dismounted cavalry got out of the way readily, other regiments came in on our left. We did not meet Bidwell’s Brigade, but passed over their battle ground, until, after nightfall, we passed over some of the ground they had fought over, and recognized the red cross of the 1st Division, 6th Corps, as being the fighters. They had evidently been on the extreme left of the line in action. We bivouacked that night near the remains of a burnt house which was said to be Montgomery Blair’s.

The fighting was virtually over before we arrived, but the camp was full of stories during the night as to what had occurred at Fort Stevens while the President was there. Evidently that fort was within the range of the artillery and the skirmishers of the Rebel Army, and it was rumored that General H. G. Wright had positively ordered the President to get out of the range of danger after an officer had been shot by his side.

Mr. Chittenden, Register of the Treasury, in his account of it says that when he reached the Fort, he found the President, Secretary Stanton and other civilians. A young colonel of the artillery, who appeared to be the officer of the day, was in great distress because the President would expose himself and paid little attention to his warnings.  He was satisfied the Confederates had recognized him, for they were firing at him very hotly, and a soldier near him had just fallen with a broken thigh. He asked my advice, says Chittenden, for he said the President was in great danger. After some consultation the young officer walked to where the President was looking over the edge of the parapet and said, ‘Mr. President, you are standing within range of 500 Rebel rifles. Please come down to a safer place. If you do not it will be my duty to call a file of men and make you.’

‘And you would do quite right, my boy,’ said the President, coming down at once, ‘you are in command of this fort. I should be the last man to set an example of disobedience.’ He was shown to a place where the view was less extended, but where there was almost no exposure. As Mr. Chittenden was present and speaks from personal knowledge, I assume this to be a correct statement.

I have recently seen a publication in which an officer, claiming to be on the staff of General Upton, describes the President as having halted at the side of the road, and with having been struck by a stray bullet. No mention of it is made in any of the accounts hitherto published of his presence. Certain it is, he was in the Fort and not in the road when we reached there. There were no other troops except those in the trenches and in the Fort at that time, and my recollection is that it must have been after dinner, the fight well over as, although we went in immediately and rapidly, we had no serious casualties. Our Brig.-General came to us, as he said, as soon as he could get a horse, and halted us for the night.

 The 47th Pennsylvanians could breathe a sigh of genuine relief when they were all finally reunited in late July of 1864. President Abraham Lincoln was still safe – and the boys from Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I had gotten a very good look at him.

 

Sources:

1. Gobin, Companion J. P. S. Lincoln Under Fire, in records of the Memorial Meeting held on 13 February 1907, in Abraham Lincoln. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Commandery of the State of Pennsylvania, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 1907-1911.

2. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.

3. Wharton, Henry D. Letters from the Sunbury Guards. Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Sunbury American, 1864.