This letter—no doubt a draft—was prepared by 54 year-old William Hallam Tuck (1808-1884), a politician and lawyer from Annapolis, Anne Arundel county, Maryland. William wrote the letter to Eleanor Beanes Mullikan Hilleary (1806-1886) of Bladensburg, Prince George’s County, Maryland—the daughter of Clement Trueman Hilleary (1784-1859) and Mary Eleanor Mullikan (1783-1816). Eleanor never married and upon the death of her father in 1859, she being the only beneficiary, inherited his property which included several slaves, most of whom were hired out and may have been working in the District of Columbia.
The event that caused “the most uncertain & ruinous state” of things in Washington D. C. referred to in the opening paragraph of the following letter was the signing by President Lincoln of the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 that Congress had passed in April 1862. Largely through the urging of Charles Sumner, a Republican congress determined that the federal government was empowered in the US Constitution to “exercise exclusive legislation” over the federal district. Though this interpretation of the federal government’s constitutional power was a source of conflict, abolitionists used it as a way to end slavery in the national capital.
Titled “An Act for the release for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” it freed the 3,100 women, men and children who were still enslaved in 1862. The act also allowed for slaveowners to be compensated up to $300 for each individual they had legally owned. In addition, newly-freed African Americans could receive up to $100 if they chose to emigrate to another country.
A three-member Emancipation Commission was established to determine who could legally claim compensation and disburse funds. The claimants had to show papers proving that they had legally owned the formerly enslaved people, and were required to pledge loyalty to the Union. Though the majority of claimants were white, there were African Americans who received compensation for family members whose titles they had purchased in order to keep them from being sold. At the end of the compensation process, the federal government had spent close to $1 million dollars to compensate individuals for their “property.” [Source: DC Emancipation Day]
9 May 1862
Dear Miss Eleanor,
I received Mr. Duvall’s letter today. I intended to have written to you by this mail. I returned from Washington last evening where I had been two days. Things are in a most uncertain & ruinous state there, as far as regards servants. I understood that hundreds are already there and crowds arriving every day. I saw several persons from this county and Prince George’s county there hunting for runaway negroes and quite uncertain whether thy would recover them or not. I saw Mr. Gilma and collected Juliet’s hire. He said he had paid Spencer to you up to a time which I don’t remember. Spencer [Snowden], he says, had gone to Virginia with a regiment and promised to let me know the regiment and Col. & place where they are. I also saw Mr. Burr and Robert. Robert appeared to be occupied but today Mr. Burr wrote me that he had given him permission to go to see you. I also collected oe month’s wages for him. He said he had the last month’s wages at his wife’s and promised to bring it to Mr. Burr for me, or carry it to you. I collected a month’s wages for Charles. 1
In the present state of things, I don’t see that anything better can be done than to file a claim for their value under the late law. Those who are confident that the law is unconstitutional and might be voided by the courts, still thing that the safer plan is to proceed under its provisions and obtain all that can be had. These negroes might be obtained again, possibly, but what will they be worth? If they go away or become dissipated, nothing can be done with them. Others are constantly running away. They will not command as much hire in the county as they so in the District, and if you let them go there to hire themselves, they will be free and cannot be recovered. But if they run away, they might be reained provided the Fugitive Slave Law applies to the District, but I understand that the administration has decided that it does not and will not allow the Marshall to serve process under it. Every facility is furnished there for their escape and nothing allowed to be done for their return to masters.
It is the opinion of persons with whom I talked that the commissioner will allow good prices for men and women and I hope they may.
I am going to Calvert County Court Monday, and will see you immediately on my return and leave the necessary papers prepared provided you determine to proceed under he law. If Robert comes home, you had better keep him in the county until you determine what to do. I shall certainly see you before I go to court again and will have everything ready at the proper time. There are twenty days from today to file the claim.
Yours very truly, — W. H. Tuck
1 One of the slaves referred to in this letter was 18 year-old “Spencer” Snowden who ran away to Washington D. C. and apparently joined a Union regiment. He is mentioned in the following petition that was filed by Eleanor B. M. Hilleary in response to the Compensation act. His value was placed at $1,000. See also Petition of Eleanor B. M. Hilleary & William H. Tuck.