Juneteenth: 7 milestones in the struggle to abolish slavery

Congress bars Union Army from returning slaves to masters – 1862

The U.S. Capitol dome and U.S. Senate in Washington.
The U.S. Capitol dome and U.S. Senate in Washington. | (Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Initially, during the outbreak of the American Civil War, Union soldiers were expected to return runaway slaves back to their masters, as the Fugitive Slave Act was still in effect.

However, nearly a year after the war began, Congress passed “An Act to make an additional Article of War,” which prohibited the Union Army from returning escaped slaves.

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“All officers or persons in the military or naval service of the United States 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 from any persons to whom such service or labor is claimed to be due,” stated the new law, in part.

The federal law also said that “any officer who shall be found guilty by a court-martial of violating this article shall be dismissed from the service.”

Paul Finkelman of the National Archives wrote that the new law was a “revolution” in that it “applied to all slaves, including those from the loyal slave states, not just fugitives from the Confederacy.”

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