The First Confiscation Act (1861) permitted Union troops to seize any property-including slaves-that were being used to support the Confederacy. This 1862 image shows escaped slaves working for wages for the Union army near Yorktown, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

During the Civil War, Garfield’s military service convinced him that the institution of slavery was politically and morally bankrupt. Particularly disturbing to him was the bigotry in the Union army that he witnessed first-hand. Writing from Pittsburg, Tennessee to his friend J. Harry Rhodes, in May 1862, he expressed his disgust with army politics and the “conspiracy among the leading officers, especially those of the regular army to taboo the whole question of anti-slavery and throw as much discredit upon it as upon treason. The purpose is seen clearly both in their words and actions. I find myself coming nearer and nearer to downright abolitionism.”

The passage of the first Confiscation Act by Congress in 1861 permitted the Union Army to take fleeing slaves under its protection. However, many Union generals, particularly those who were Democrats, refused to honor this provision, which angered James Garfield. In 1862, he pointedly rebuked what he termed “the haughty tyranny of proslavery officers.” He wrote, “Not long ago my commanding general sent me an order to have my camp searched for a fugitive slave. I sent back word that if generals wished to disobey an express law of Congress, which is also an order from the War Department, they must do it themselves for no soldier or officer under my command should take part in such disobedience…”

Garfield’s humanity in regard to a slave he encountered in the field is eloquently recalled in The Garfield Orbit, by Margaret Leech and Harry Brown. Shortly after the battle of Middle Creek, Kentucky, in early 1862, “a Negro boy was brought to Colonel Garfield – an odd figure, dressed in Confederate uniform and fully armed and equipped. The servant of a Virginia colonel, Jim Rollins had slipped away near the close of the fight and come to the Union commander to give himself up. Garfield was touched by his trust. His thinking was changing… He was coming to believe that the war to save the Union would inevitably carry nationwide emancipation in its train. It added personal warmth to Garfield’s intellectual conclusion that he stood to this Negro boy as the representative of protection and freedom.”

Though Garfield was troubled by how Union officers treated African-Americans, he was equally aware of the dilemma of what to do with Negro camp followers, especially women and children. The men could be employed as Teamsters or drilled to become soldiers. But with the surrounding country being, in Garfield’s words, “devastated and destitute,” he was “totally unable to see how its people and especially the Negroes will escape actual starvation. Thousands have been abandoned by their masters, who… now cruelly turn them out to perish or become a burden which this army cannot safely assume. We should be obliged to duplicate our rations in less than two months if we took them up to feed and protect. It is one of the saddest pictures I ever witnessed… I wish the government would try some plan of alleviation.”


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