Dec 1863–Fugitive Slave Law Schizophrenia in the North, King Cotton Implodes in the South and the Civil War is not Over

By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society

Runaway Slave advertisement

Runaway Slave advertisement

The obligation of states to return runaway slaves was written into the Constitution; however, the issue became a bargaining chip in the great Compromise of 1850 and continued to be a lightning rod between North and South in the run up to the war. Once the war did begin, the Confederate government in the South developed the strategy of King Cotton diplomacy to leverage their might and get their way with Great Britain. The decision in 1861 would prove to be disastrous. Although the war officially ended four years later with Lee’s surrender of Grant at Appomattox, for some today–it still isn’t over!

December 5, 1863 Danville North Star

The fugitive slave law is now and then enforced in Washington. A case occurred on Saturday in which a negro boy was claimed by a citizen of Maryland. The owner on taking the oath of loyalty and proving ownership had his slave returned to him.


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that was on the books at the time had its roots in a clause written by our founding fathers into the Constitution: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” The provision was also more righteously called the “Fugitives from Labor Clause.”

A Slave Catcher Warning

A Slave Catcher Warning

In essence, the law required complicity and assistance of Northern states in enforcing slave labor laws in the South. However, by 1850 the American political landscape had changed dramatically. Over time many Northern states enacted legal means to subvert the Constitutional provision and the law that supported it. “Personal liberty laws” in Northern states made jury trials a prerequisite to the return of any slave and forbade local or state officials from effectively implementing the Fugitive Slave law.

The influence of the strident abolitionist movement, which hated both the sin of slavery and the slaveholder alike, drove much of the resistance. Southern elites countered with their own theological construct; by making the Christian fundamentalist argument that slavery was “divinely inspired” and citing the fact that there are numerous biblical references to slavery, they argued the practice is not explicitly cited as a sin.

But the heat upon the South continued to increase with some religious groups, such as the Quakers, working to help slaves escape from the South through the Underground Railroad which spirited blacks north and on to as far as Canada. The conflict between the two regions had escalated beyond the religious and philosophical to the economic with passions rising accordingly.

Racist sentiment in the North remained strong with many people who did not want blacks in their midst. Despite these feelings among many whites, there were pockets in the North where runaway slaves and their families could live, farm and prosper. One such place was Cass County in Michigan. This captured the attention of slave holders in Kentucky, who in 1847 and 1849 conducted raids upon the county to take back their property.

By 1850, the country was coming apart, and Southern states threatened to secede. However, a Civil War was averted for 11 years because Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky and Stephen Douglas of Illinois brokered a deal. One of the most contentious issues was whether new states would come into the Union slave or free. So as part of the great compromise of 1850, US territories were split in half by a negotiated line that provided the geography above it would come in as free states, and all new states below as slave. The new states of Maine and Missouri, the former free and the latter slave, were admitted to the Union as part of the deal that maintained the Congressional balance of power between slave interests and those who opposed it.

In addition, the South demanded in the 1850 Compromise a new and more robust Fugitive Slaves Act. The law effectively imposed a $28,000 (in today’s purchasing power) fine on any US marshal or any other law-enforcement official who did not arrest a runaway slave. His owner merely had to present a sworn testimony of ownership. Those who aided and abetted those slaves were subject to the same fine and imprisonment for six months.

But the Compromise would prove to be a band-aid; it was a catalyst for even more Northern resistance against slavery and led to the proxy war in Kansas between Free-Soilers and slave interests. Kansas would see its own guerrilla war organized and funded by competing interests in the North and the South. Two separate governments–one free, one slave—were in contest for power within its borders. And the historic 1858 debate between two Illinois candidates for the Senate, Lincoln and Douglas, occurred. Lincoln argued that Kansas be admitted to the Union as a free state, because slavery was immoral; Stephen Douglas thought that “popular sovereignty” should be maintained and that the people of the state should decide the slave question for themselves. This question would be one of the issues that caused the country to come apart at the seams three years later.

The experience of that black boy in the nation’s capital on a Saturday afternoon in December of 1863, in the midst of a civil war, was reflective of our country’s tortured history. By virtue of the great Compromise of 1850, slave trade had been banned in Washington DC ,and yet the young man, who escaped the Union state of Maryland, where slavery was a Constitutional right and protected by the fugitive slave provision of an eleven-year-old law, was given back to his owner and sent back into human bondage.

War and General New Items

It is said that the cotton which will be thrown into the market by our occupation of Texas will amount to 250,000 bales.


King CottonAt the end of his life, US Grant wrote in his memoirs that the Civil War would not have happened without the cotton gin. Eli Whitney’s invention of this machine, back in 1794, enabled the cultivation of cotton in many areas of the country, including the Deep South. The gin breathed new life into the practice of slavery by making cotton farming more productive and economically sustainable.

By 1861 cotton had become as important to the global economy as oil is today. The entire South was dependent on this cash crop that was America’s number one export. For the Confederacy, cotton was the revenue spigot to fund the government and buy arms. It also provided the South considerable leverage in negotiations with powerful countries in Europe, especially Britain.

In fact, the rebel government crafted much of its diplomatic strategy on a crop that could become fodder for the boll weevil. The locust did not come to pass; however, the South did much to shoot itself in the foot. The weapon that was the tool of this self-inflicted strategy was called King Cotton diplomacy. The goal was to force Britain to formally recognize the Confederate States of America as an independent nation, supply armaments for the war and perhaps enter the conflict on the South’s behalf. In a move that in hindsight seems to be a case of “cutting your nose off to spite your face,” the Confederacy decided to cut off cotton supplies to England, its biggest trading partner and a dominant player in the global textile industry.

Before the Civil War, the South was sending about 678 million bales of cotton to Great Britain, representing about three-quarters of the island’s manufacturing consumption. In order to kick-off the King Cotton program, the South set 2.5 million bales afire to create a cotton shortage. The Confederacy could then export less than half of the commodity’s original amount. To make matters worse, Jefferson Davis forgot to take into account that the bumper crops throughout the 1850’s had been shipped to Britain. Over the three or four years leading up to the Civil War, its trading partner had built up a stockpile of one-million bales before the war began.

Britain was able to wait out the “cotton famine” well into 1862. When cotton drought did come, the price per bale shot through the roof, going from ten-cents a pound in 1860 to $1.89 a pound in ’63 –’64. But narcissism had caused the South to unknowingly give up their place in the catbird’s seat. After the Confederacy had lit the match in ‘61 to millions of bales in the name of King Cotton, Great Britain had turned to other exporting nations like Egypt, Brazil and India.

From ’63 on, the South was able to use cotton to barter with British manufacturers to supply them with weaponry, ammunition, and ships. The Union blockade of Southern coastlines also depressed the availability of cotton and helped create a black market for the crop, allowing blockade runners to realize profits of 300 to 500 percent and chalk the loss of some ships to Union capture as a mere business expense. This black market also presented opportunities for graft and corruption in the Union Army. Military officers conspired with “operators” in the North who would then “move product” to nearby textile manufacturers. So where did the 250,000 bales of Texas cotton go? What money ended up in whose pocket is anybody’s guess.

Meanwhile, the Union was still dithering in the Eastern Theatre, but US Grant would soon take over.

December 12, 1863 Danville North Star

Late Richmond (Va.) Papers give meager accounts of the recent operations in Tennessee and Georgia, but what a “terrible disaster” is frankly admitted … there is a strong tone of gloom, disappointment and depression pervading the Southern community in consequence of this rebel defeat. Bragg is denounced in unsparing language and his removal is demanded without delay. Longstreet’s position in East Tennessee, after many positive assertions of great success, is finally admitted to be precarious, and there is hardly a gleam of hope or confidence to be extracted from any point of the rebel military situation by even the hopeful and defiant rebel journals themselves.

Washington News

Washington, Dec 4 – The Star, under the head of “The Army of the Potomac and Its Hesitating Generals,” says: –

“So long as our army in this quarter continues to be guided by its present councils in the field, it is now clear that it will fail to command public confidence…So if Lee, relying upon a continuance of the chronic hesitancy that has afflicted the councils of Gen Meade, ventures to reinforce Longstreet considerably from his own army, which he has yet time at least to attempt, the Government will promptly seek to make him pay dear for his temerity, as our, Army of Potomac is ready at this moment to move again as it was when undertaking to do so in a few days since.”

December 26, 1863 Danville North Star

War and General New Items

John Hunt Morgan

John Hunt Morgan

John Morgan, the escaped guerilla chief, has reached Richmond and Davis has given him the command in the Army of Georgia.


John Hunt Morgan was a Confederate cavalry commander. His cavalry travelled light and lived off the land. He made raids into the North, including one where he rampaged and raised havoc in Indiana and Ohio for two-and-a-half weeks, overrunning local militias. However, the Union cavalry intervened and chased him all the way into Pennsylvania. Morgan and his officers were thrown into the Ohio State Penitentiary, but he tunneled out the facility and found his way back to Georgia to fight again. A year later he managed to get himself killed, which no doubt helped him earn a spot in the pantheon of “Lost Cause” mythology.

The South’s post-war revisionism, called “The Lost Cause,” is still going strong today. Among other things, Lost Causers believe that secession was legal, slavery is not a moral abomination, and the North started the Civil War because they opposed the spread of slavery into new US territory.

They rally around the Confederate flag and petition local governments to name schools and town squares after people like General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was a slave-trader extraordinaire. He orchestrated the massacre of USCT (US Colored Troops) after their surrender at Fort Pillow and was the originator and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary group that terrorized and killed blacks and those sympathetic to their cause after the Civil War and well into the twentieth century. There is a KKK group in existence today whose requirements are that you be white, Christian and not have been convicted of being a pedophile. All other white Christian criminals are eligible for membership.


This entry was posted in Historical events, Historical people, Historical sites, NSM articles. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.