The 92nd Illinois riles Kentuckians
In November 1862 the 92nd Illinois Infantry, which had become known as a “slave-stealing” regiment for its refusal to return fleeing slaves to their owners, marched through Kentucky towns with weapons loaded to overawe threatening pro-slavery mobs. The controversy mirrored the evolving struggle in the North over how the war should affect African American slavery.
Time and change
President Abraham Lincoln declared with the opening of war that his government’s purpose was to preserve unbroken the nation established by the Founders, not to end or modify the institution of slavery in the rebellious states. Under this policy many African Americans who escaped slavery and sought freedom within U.S. Army lines were returned to their masters.
As the war stretched from weeks to months, many in the loyal states began to rethink the place of slavery in the struggle. This was the result in part of dealing with circumstances and issues unseen in the war’s first days, but also of changing attitudes toward stubborn rebels who refused to lay down their arms.
The military complicated matters when Major General Benjamin Butler used the Confederate concept of the enslaved being a form of property to declare escaped African Americans who entered his Federal lines to be contraband of war, subject like other forms of property to seizure by the government. Many other officers began to use this legalism to employ escapees as army laborers.
Congress also played a role, passing laws regarding confiscation of rebel property. In March 1862 a new article of war—a portion of the code that governed the armed forces—was adopted. It declared that all military officers “are prohibited from employing any of the forces under their respective commands for the purpose of returning fugitives from service or labor, who may have escaped. …” Officers found guilty by a court-martial of violating the article were to be dismissed from the service.
President Lincoln took part in the process by signing the Congressional legislation, though sometimes with misgivings. In the fall of 1861 he drew the line at supporting a general emancipation, forcing the revocation of Major General John C. Frémont’s proclamation of emancipation in Missouri. The move, Lincoln wrote, was among other things “not within the range of military law, or government necessity.” Twelve months later the president thought differently. On September 22, 1862, he issued a preliminary proclamation of emancipation that warned those living in areas under Confederate control that if they did not lay down their arms by January 1, 1863, their slaves would be declared free.
The 92nd Illinois enters the fray
Into this state of affairs marched the 92nd Illinois Infantry. Raised in the northern Illinois counties of Stephenson, Ogle, and Carroll, the regiment was commanded by Republican attorney Smith D. Atkins of Freeport. The men learned of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation while being organized in Rockford in September 1862. According to the regimental historian, “little knots were gathered through the camp discussing it. The general verdict was approved. Indeed, many hoped that the war would not end before the hundred days [allowed by the Proclamation to the rebels to lay down their arms and retain their slaves] expired, and the freedom of the black man had become secure.”
The newly organized regiment marched into Kentucky in October 1862. The slaveholding state had remained loyal, but how the Lincoln government dealt with slavery always threatened to upset the relationship. When African Americans flocked to the 92nd’s camp seeking refuge, Atkins sent them away. But when ordered by his superior officer to return to the owner a slave who had actually come within the regiment’s lines Atkins pondered the situation. He studied the War Department’s General Orders 1391. The fugitive was not surrendered to his owner, but put out of the lines and pointed toward the Ohio River and the free states beyond. A meeting of the officers of the 92nd determined that future orders to surrender fleeing slaves “should not be obeyed.”
On November 2 Colonel Atkins issued a proclamation assuming command of the Mount Sterling area. In it he warned that “no part of my command will in any way be used for the purpose of returning fugitive slaves. It is not necessary for Illinois soldiers to become slave-hounds to demonstrate their loyalty…” He justified his stand to a friend in Illinois, writing that “under the President’s proclamation of Sept 22d 62. I cannot conscientiously force my boys to become the slavehounds of Kentuckians & I am determined I will not.” Hoping to make the matter moot, he issued orders to keep all civilian personnel, white and black, outside the regiment’s lines.
Over the next weeks scores of African Americans sought refuge within the lines of the 92nd. Colonel Atkins responded by turning the refugees out of his lines but refusing to return them to their masters or to local law enforcement officials. About fifteen blacks remained with the regiment, working for Union officers as servants.
Marching through Winchester and Lexington
On November 16 the regiment marched toward Winchester. Atkins was warned that a mob in the town planned to remove the black servants and restore them to their owners. On reaching the brow of a hill overlooking the town it was seen that hundreds, including the 14th Kentucky Infantry, were milling in the streets awaiting the Illinois regiment. Atkins ordered the regiment to load their muskets and fix their bayonets. He then declared “we are threatened with difficulty in passing through this town. I hope there will not be any. Listen to my orders. You will march in silence…. If a gun is fired at you; if a brickbat, or club, or stone be thrown at you,—do not await orders, but resent it at once with steel and bayonet…. You must not fire first; but if fired upon, kill every human being in the town and burn every building.” A member of the regiment remembered later that “a shout from the regiment that shook the houses, told that the men understood the orders….” As the regiment entered the town Atkins was met by the local sheriff and served with “a hat full of documents” demanding the surrender of stolen property in the form of escaped slaves. Atkins received the papers, and the regiment proceeded through town without further incident.
Days later the 92nd marched to Lexington, the hometown of Henry Clay and Mary Lincoln. A section of the regiment’s last company was surrounded and cut off from the rest of the unit by sheriffs, special deputies, and members of the 14th Kentucky Infantry who attempted to pull a black servant from the ranks. The sergeant in command ordered his men to block the attempt with their bayonets. A Kentucky officer asked the sergeant if he “intended to defend the —— n…..r.” The sergeant affirmed he did to which the Kentucky officer replied, “I have come for him, and will have him or die.” The full regiment soon marched back into town and Atkins gave an ultimatum, allowing the mob three minutes to disperse. If they failed to do so, he warned, “these streets will run with blood.” The mob broke up without incident. The following day the local sheriff arrived to serve more papers in additional cases accusing Atkins of theft of property.
The end of the story
In December 1862 Colonel Atkins reported to the Secretary of War on his recent legal problems. He informed the War Department that
“[t]he Grand Jury of Montgomery County have found several indictments against me for stealing negroes—Grand Larceny. These negroes came into my camp, said they belonged to the enemies of our country, claimed protection, were employed … as servants; Col. J. C. Cochrain … ordered me to deliver them up- I declined to do so- and find myself proceeded against as a ‘criminal’ in these Kentucky Courts that a few weeks ago could not hold a sitting were it not for the protection of the bayonets the union soldiers wield. I have acted in good faith throughout, trying only to do my duty…. and I will, of course, expect the government I serve to protect and shield me from these oppressive suits.”
At the same time Atkins also wrote to abolitionist leader and congressman Owen Lovejoy of Princeton to ask for legal advice. Atkins feared that as he could not “stop from the pursuit of rebels” to attend civil courts and so would lose the court cases by default, his “property in Illinois go to sale to pay for the freedom of these men that the law has made free, and the Presidents order and article of war forbid my sending back to bondage.” If that happened, he warned, “we ourselves…. become the victims, and that for only obeying the Articles of war, the Orders of the President, and our consciences as men.”
Atkins did not become a victim. The whole Kentucky incident, which had threatened eruptions of musketry, ended with a whimper of court summonses that were coolly ignored.
Interested in learning more?
The regimental history Ninety-Second Illinois Volunteers (1875) is unusual in its declaration that “African slavery was the real cause of the war.” Pages 33 to 56 discuss the 1862 Kentucky affair, printing many of the official documents. The book is online at http://www.archive.org/details/ninetysecondilli00illi . Colonel Atkins’s copies of documents are in the regiment’s papers in “Administrative Files on Civil War Companies and Regiments,” RS301.018, in the Illinois State Archives. Other documents regarding the incident are found in Ira Berlin et al, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867 series 1, volume 1, pp. 528-38. An important study of the hardening Federal attitude toward rebels is Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War (1997). The twisting road toward emancipation and Lincoln’s role in it is laid out in many works, including David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995) and Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004).