Slave Rentals to the Military: Pensacola and the Gulf Coast
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SLAVE RENTALS TO THE MILITARY: Pensacola and the Gulf Coast Ernest F. Dibble Obscurely tucked away in the National Archives are military records that reveal interesting evidence of slave rentals before the Civil War. Little attention was given to this common practice until abolitionist pressures forced Congress to demand explanations from various federal agencies. In 1842, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur told a House committee that there were "no slaves in the navy" other than a few personal servants. He further reminded the committee of a regulation "against the employment of slaves in the general service."1 Upshur's testimony was inaccurate. Charles Ball, once hired as a slave in the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard, wrote of widespread use of slaves at that installation.2 And in 1851 a visitor to Washington reported seeing "a large number of slaves, who seemed to be forging their own chains, but they were making chain, anchors, etc. for the United States Navy."3 In fact, the Navy rented slaves throughout the ante-bellum period. The response by the Secretary of the Army was much more complete . Noting that only whites could be enlisted, he stated that no regulation existed against using slaves as laborers. He therefore included reports that 106 slaves were employed in the Quartermaster Corps, "mostly ... in Florida;" eight employed by the Commissary Department, two in New Orleans and six in Florida; 28 by the Ordnance Department, 21 in North Carolina, two in Florida , two in Louisiana, and two in Arkansas; and 545 by the Corps of Engineers, listed not by state but by occupation. 492 of the 545 were laborers, whereas the others were designated as teamsters, boatmen, masons, smiths, and carpenters.4 Thus, 687 slaves were being rented by the Army in 1842, mainly by the Corps of Engineers . 1 "Colored Persons in the Navy of the U.S.," Letter from the Secretary of the Navy (A. P. Upshur), 27 Cong., 2 Sess., House Doc. 282 (Aug. 5, 1842). 1 See Charles Ball, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, A Bhck Man (Pittsburgh, [c] 183T), pp. 20ff. 3 Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley, TraveL· in the United States, Etc. During 18491850 (New York, 1851), p. 85. 4 "Colored Persons in the Army," Letter from the Secretary of War (J. C. Spencer), 27 Cong., 2 Sess., House Doc. 286 (Aug. 1ß, 1842), pp. Iff. 101 102CIVIL WAR HISTORY The record of slave rentals given to Congress in 1842 does not reveal the extent or duration of military reliance on slaves before or after that date. Slaves had been rented from plantations to build Fort Moultrie and other works surrounding Charleston, South Carolina , and in Georgia during the period of the American Revolution. And slaves had built fortifications around New Orleans for Andrew Jackson's famous defense of the city in the War of 1812.5 Even though records are spotty, it is possible to detail that slaves were being rented in 1817 in New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., and Fort Hawkins, Georgia.8 The Augusta Arsenal in Georgia hired slaves in 1825, 1830, and 1831.7 Fort Morgan, Alabama was built by extensive use of many slaves.8 Over 100 slaves were being rented at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, in 1821.9 One of the slaves hired at Fortress Monroe and elsewhere sent down to work under his owner at the Augusta Arsenal in 1839. However, the Quartermaster General found the Captain's explanation for hiring his own slaves "altogether inadmissable."10 Congressional interest in the extent of slave hiring by the military in 1842 may have been inspired by a minor scandal that erupted two years earlier in the Quartermaster Corps. F. L. Dancy, superintending the construction of a sea-wall at St. Augustine, Florida, had for several months made an owner sign receipts of $15.00 while giving her only $12.00 for the employ of a slave. The extra money was supposedly given to the slave for Sunday work tending the superintendent's horses. Similar cases became known and Congress demanded a copy of all the charges and evidence on the subject.11 This extra payments controversy revealed an apparently widespread practice...