Among the regiments of the division was the Twenty-Second Wisconsin, Colonel Utley, an officer who had no sympathy with slavery. He had a cool head and a good deal of nerve. He had read the Proclamation of President Lincoln, and made up his mind to do what was right, recognizing the President as his Commander-in-Chief, and not the State of Kentucky. There were negroes accompanying his regiment, and he did not see fit to turn them out. Three days later he received the following note:
October 18th, 1862.
COLONEL: You will at once send to my headquarters the four contrabands, John, Abe, George, and Dick, known to belong to good and loyal citizens. They are in your regiment, or were this morning.
Colonel Utley, instead of sending the men, replied:
Permit me to say, that I recognize your authority to command me in all military matters pertaining to the military movements of the army. I do not look upon this as belonging to that department. I recognize no authority on the subject of delivering up contrabands save that of the President of the United States.
You are, no doubt, conversant with that Proclamation, dated Sept. 22, 1862, and the law of Congress on the subject. In conclusion, I will say, that I had nothing to do with their coming into camp, and shall have nothing to do with sending them out.
As the regiment passed through Georgetown, a large number of slaves belonging to citizens of that place fled from their masters, and found shelter in the army. Some of the officers who had less nerve than Colonel Utley gave them up, or permitted the owners to come and take them. A Michigan regiment marching through the town had its lines entered by armed citizens, who forcibly took away their slaves. Colonel Utley informed the inhabitants that any attempt to take contrabands from his lines would be resisted.
Let me say to you, gentlemen, he said to a delegation of the citizens, that my men will march with loaded muskets, and if any attempt is made upon my regiment, I shall sweep your streets with fire, and close the history of Georgetown. If you seriously intend any such business, I advise you to remove the women and children.
The regiment marched the next morning with loaded muskets. The citizens beheld their negroes sheltered and protected by a forest of gleaming bayonets, and wisely concluded not to attempt the recovery of the uncertain property.
The day after its arrival in Nicholasville, a large, portly gentleman, lying back in an elegant carriage, rode up to the camp, and making his appearance before the Colonel, introduced himself as Judge Robertson, Chief Justice of the State of Kentucky.
The Judge sat down, not greatly astonished, for the reputation of the Twenty-Second Wisconsin, as an abolition regiment, was well established. He began to argue the matter. He talked of the compromises of the Constitution, and proceeded to say:
Well, sir, all that may be. If you did it from principle, it was commendable; but your mission here to-day gives the lie to your professions. I dont permit negro-hunters to go through my regiment; but I will see if I can find the boy, and if he is willing to go I will not hinder him.
The Colonel went out and found the negro Joe, a poor, half-starved, undersized boy, nineteen years old. He told his story. He belonged to the Judge, who had let him to a brutal Irishman for $50 a year. He had been kicked and cuffed, starved and whipped, till he could stand it no longer. He went to the Judge and complained, but had been sent back only to receive a worse thrashing for daring to complain. At last he took to the woods, lived on walnuts, green corn, and apples, sleeping among the corn-shucks and wheat-stacks till the army came. There were tears in Joes eyes as he rehearsed his sufferings.
Judge Robertson, I dont think you can get that boy. If you think you can, there he is; try it. I shall have nothing to do with it, said the Colonel, casting a significant glance around to the soldiers who had gathered about them.
Allow me to say, Judge, that it does not become you to call us nigger-stealers. You talk about nigger-stealingyou who live on the sweat and blood of such creatures as Joe! Your dwellings, your churches, are built from the earnings of slaves, beaten out of them by brutal overseers. You hire little children out to brutes,you clothe them in rags,you hunt them with hounds,you chain them down to toil and suffering! You call us thieves because we have given your Joe food and protection! Sir, I would rather be in the place of Joe than in that of his oppressor! was the indignant outburst of the Colonel.
Judge, allow me to tell you what sort of Unionism I have found in Kentucky. I have not seen a half-dozen who did not damn the President. You may put all the pure Unionism in Kentucky in one scale, and a ten-pound nigger baby in the other, and the Unionism will kick the beam. Allow me to say, further, that if the perpetuity or restoration of the Union depends upon my delivering to you with my own hands that little half-starved dwarf of a slave, the Union may be cast into hell with all the nations that forget God!
The Presidents Proclamation is unconstitutional. It has no bearing on Kentucky. I see that it is your deliberate intention to set at naught the laws, said the Judge, turning away and walking to General Gillmores headquarters.
The Colonel obeyed the summons, and found there not only Judge Robertson, but several fine old Kentucky gentlemen; also Colonel Coburn, the commander of the brigade, who agreed with General Gillmore in the policy then current. Colonel Coburn said:
The policy of the commanding generals, as I understand it, is simply this: that persons who have lost slaves have a right to hunt for them anywhere in the State. If a slave gets inside of the lines of a regiment, the owner has a right to enter those lines, just as if no regiment was there, and take away the fugitive at his own pleasure.
I regret that I am under the necessity of differing in opinion from my commanding officers, to whom I am ready at all times to render strict military obedience, but (the Colonel raised his voice) I reverse the Kentucky policy! I hold that the regiment stands precisely as though there were no slavery in Kentucky. We came here as free men, from a free State, at the call of the President, to uphold a free government. We have nothing to do with slavery. The Twenty-Second Wisconsin, while I have the honor to command it, will never be a regiment of nigger-catchers. I will not allow civilians to enter my lines at pleasure; it is unmilitary. Were I to permit it, I should be justly amenable to a court-martial. Were I to do it, spies might enter my lines at all times and depart at pleasure.
There was silence. But Judge Robertson was loath to go away without his flesh and blood. He made one more effort. Colonel, I did not come to your lines as a spy, but with an order from your General. Are you willing that I should go and get my boy?
The Judge departed, and at the next session of the Court, Colonel Utley was indicted for man-stealing; but he has not yet been brought to trial. The case is postponed till the day of Judgment, when a righteous verdict will be rendered.
The Judge returned to Lexington, called a public meeting, at which he made a speech, denouncing the Twenty-Second Wisconsin as an abolition regiment, and introducing resolutions declaring that the Union never could be restored if the laws of the State of Kentucky were thus set at defiance. This from the Judge, while his son was in the Rebel service, fighting against the Union.
But the matter was not yet over. A few days later, the division containing the Twenty-Second Wisconsin, commanded by General Baird, vice Gillmore, was ordered down the river. It went to Louisville, followed by the slave-hunters, who were determined to have their negroes.
The regiment moved on through the streets, and reached the Gault House, where the slaveholders had congregated. A half-dozen approached the regiment rather cautiously, but one bolder than the rest sprang into the ranks and seized a negro by the collar.
The Twenty-Second took transportation on the steamer Commercial. The captain of the boat was a Kentuckian, who came to Colonel Utley in great trepidation, saying: Colonel, I cant start till those negroes are put on shore. I shall be held responsible. My boat will be seized and libeled under the laws of the State.
I cant help that, sir; the boat is under the control and in the employ of the government. I am commander on board, and you have nothing to do but to steam up and go where you are directed. Otherwise I shall be under the necessity of arresting you.
The captain departed and began his preparations. But now came the sheriff of Jefferson County with a writ. He wanted the bodies of George, Abraham, John, and Dick, who were still with the Twenty-Second. They were the runaway property of a fellow named Hogan, who a few days before had figured in a convention held at Frankfort, in which he introduced a series of Secession resolutions.
I have a writ for your arrest, but I am willing to waive all action on condition of your giving up the fugitives which you are harboring contrary to the peace and dignity of the State, said the sheriff.
I have other business to attend to just now. I am under orders from my superiors in command to proceed down the river without any delay, and must get the boat under way, said the Colonel, bowing politely.
The sheriff jumped ashore. There were hoarse puffs from the steam-pipes, the great wheels turned in the stream, the Commercial swung from her moorings, and the soldiers of Wisconsin floated down the broad Ohio with the stars and stripes waving above them.