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Fugitive Slave Collar

Iron collar removed from a fugitive slave by Wisconsin soldiers in 1862.
(Museum object #1961.73)

In early June 1862, the 4th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry occupied Baton Rouge, Louisiana. According to John T. Perry of Company I, within days of the regiment's arrival two escaped slaves came into camp still wearing the shackles their master had placed upon them as punishment. The slaves, known as Old Steve and Charley, both wore handcuffs and Old Steve bore the iron collar shown at left, which the Wisconsin soldiers removed by filing off one of the rivets that held the collar closed.

According to Perry's account, Old Steve was a large, powerful slave about fifty years of age who served as a head plowman on a local plantation. Apparently interested to see northern soldiers for themselves, he and Charley ignored their master's instructions to hide from advancing Union forces, instead chatting with soldiers on a riverboat that docked at the landing of the plantation. Both slaves visited for a while and then returned to their work, not attempting to escape.

Their master, however, took offense at his slaves' disobediance and had them whipped, shackled, and locked in stocks in a small brick structure known as a calaboose. Old Steve, suspected to be the main culprit of the two, also had this iron collar secured around his neck. Perry's account notes that, "On either side of the collar was riveted a spike about four inches long, so arranged that one of the spikes stuck up behind each ear, and held the head as in a vice. Any attempt to turn the head ever so slightly resulted in a prod from one of these spikes."

Despite the conditions of his imprisonment, after several hours of effort Old Steve eventually broke a link of his handcuffs. He and Charley then managed to escape from the calaboose, walked about a half a mile to the river, and used an old canoe to travel to the Union camp in the city of Baton Rouge where they met the soldiers of the 4th Wisconsin.

While Perry notes that Charley soon disappeared amongst other former slaves in camp, Old Steve began cooking for Company I. Then working in the commissary, Perry saw a good deal of Old Steve over the next few months and "found him naturally bright, capable, and very ambitious. He could not read a word, but, in spite of his advanced age, he somewhere obtained an old 'Webster's spelling book', and went to work to learn. Every moment he could spare from his duties he spent in study, getting help from one and another of the soldiers as he could; and he was already making rapid progress, considering his opportunities."

When Major General Benjamin F. Butler ordered the organization of some of the first regiments of African American soldiers in the Union army (initially known as the Louisiana Native Guards and later as the Corps d'Afrique) in the fall of 1862, Old Steve left his cooking duties and joined the army as a soldier. After Old Steve's enlistment, Perry lost track of him.

The collar Old Steve wore into the 4th Wisconsin's camp was sent back to Wisconsin with other war relics and later became part of the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society. John T. Perry recalled his experiences with Old Steve and Charley to his son, Herbert S. Perry, who transcribed the account as "Prize Story" and sent it to the Society in 1910.

[Source: Perry, Herbert S. "Prize Story." Wisconsin Historical Museum (Museum Accession File 1909.216). Online facsimile at: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1352]


Posted on June 16, 2005

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