Following is a transcription of an actual case of three fugitive slaves, all men, brought into Memphis’ Fort Pickering January 9, 1863 for allegedly stealing the property of their former owners. They were brought in my Col. Howe’s (Union) Cavalry. Confessions were obtained from them. Their case was forwarded by Capt. H. Park to Gen. Alexander Asboth and to Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanders at Memphis. The author of the case narrative, complaining of “numerous depredations” that have been committed by blacks being taken care of generously by the government, recommends that the accused be executed to deter other blacks from committing similar acts. In the stated confessions, each man admits to taking animals from former masters, how they came to do so, and what happened subsequently. “Theft” of the private property of slaveowners was common during the war and not just perpetrated by blacks. The irony of course is that the men themselves, who identify their former owners, hadn’t long ago been property themselves. In some people’s view, the liminality of war suspended any absolute concept of ownership, especially since the ability of blacks to receive sanctuary behind Union lines had in 1861 been rationalized as a justified appropriation of the enemy’s property as contraband. It is the case as well that many blacks entered Union encampments with property, sometime of their masters and sometimes of their own (or so they claimed). In many, if not most, cases, such property was taken from them by the federal government. At this time, it is not known if the accused men received the sentence recommended.
As you read the transcript, consider these questions (1) what does this narrative suggest about Emancipation that other narratives, especially national ones tied to the Emancipation Proclamation and “nationalized” ones such as Juneteenth, do not suggest ,(2) what, if anything, surprises you about the confession of the three men, and (3) what patterns do you notice in their confessions, and what do you make of the patterns?
Note: The text was transcribed as written with the exception of insertion of apostrophes where needed to indicate possession.
TEXT: The following statements were made by the three Negroes. (Mose Herron, Punch & Mannell Sinclair) brought into the Fort by a detachment of Col. Howe’s Cav. together with three mules and one horse.
1st — My name is Mose Herron, was owned by John Herron, who lives six or seven miles from the river. I went last night to John Herron’s plantation and got a Hack horse and a sorrell mule. John Herron did not know that I took the animals. I wanted them to haul wood with, no other animals was taken from Herron’s plantation as I know of. On my way back, I overtook two other colored men, Punch and Mannill Sinclair) they had each a mule, don’t know where they got the mules. The Cav. brought us in the Fort.
2nd — My name is Punch, was owned by Thomas Holeman who lives about seven miles east of the Fort. I went out to my master Holeman’s last night to get some things I left there. (Blankets) Mannill Sinclair went with me. On our way back we stopped at Mr. Johnson’s plantation, about a mile this side Master Holeman’s, and got two mules, one black and one Sorrell mule, Mr. Johnson did not know that we took the mules. On our way back, Mose Herron overtook us, he had a black horse and a sorrell mule, don’t know where he got them. The Cav. brought us into the Fort.
3rd — My name is Mannill Sinclair, was owned by Robert Sinclair in Mo. I went with Punch to help him carry some bedding from his Master Holeman’s. Coming back from Mr. Holeman’s we stopped at Mr. Johnson’s plantation and took two mules, one black the other sorrell. Mr. Johnson did not know that we got the mules. We met Mose Herron on our way back, he had a black horse and a sorrell mule. He said he took them from his old master John Herron, Some Cav. brought us into the Fort.
Source: M416, United States Union Provost Marshall’s Records of Two or More Civilians, 1861–1866.
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