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A Wisconsin Soldier Refuses to Give Slaves Back to Their Owners in 1862

By Michael Edmonds
Standards: 8.1, 8.3, 8.4, 8.5, 8.6; 12.1, 12.2, 12.5, 12.15, 12.18
Grade Level: Secondary
Topic: Wisconsin in the Civil War Era

Lesson Plan Text:

Introduction: In the spring of 1862, Sgt. John Perry found himself far from home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, trying to feed, house, and clothe the 200 soldiers in Co. I of the 4th Wis. Infantry. One day in early June, two escaped slaves appeared at the camp wearing iron shackles, their backs scored by whippings. Slaves who had escaped from their owners swarmed around every Union Army camp at the time, sometimes outnumbering the troops 2 to 1. This led General Thomas Williams to issue General Order 46 on June 5, 1862, requiring all U.S. troops to return escaped slaves to their owners.

The colonel of the 4th Infantry, Halbert E. Paine, ordered the shackles and heavy iron collars removed from the two slaves and put them to work as cooks under Sgt. Perry. Paine refused to obey the order to return slaves to their owners. In the correspondence cited below, he explains his reasons for this direct disobedience of orders to his commanding officer. Gen. Williams was not impressed by Paine's argument and punished the Wisconsin colonel by stripping him of his command and his weapons. A few months later, Gen. Williams was relieved of his own command and Paine was raised to the rank of Brigadier General. One of the two slaves left Co. I to enlist in a Union regiment of African American volunteers. The next year, the first African American regiments fought alongside the Wisconsin 4th Infantry at the Battle of Port Hudson.


Background reading:  Abolition and Other Reforms
                                 The Iron Brigade, Old Abe and Military Affairs

Documents to Analyze:

Article-- "News from the 4th Regiment -- Col. Paine Under Arrest"
Article-- "A Shameful History"

Who, What, Where, When, Why

These two newspaper articles appeared in quick succession in the Wisconsin press in the summer of 1862. The first summarizes the events described above and prints letters between Col. Paine and Gen Williams' staff. The second provides further details in the form of a report by Rev. A. C. Barry, chaplain to the 4th Infantry, who had just returned from the front.

Related Documents:

Manuscript-- Perry, John T. "Prize Story [his account of the refugee slaves, refered to above]"
Artifact-- The iron collar removed from a fugitive slave by Wisconsin soldiers in 1862

Student Activities:

1. List several reasons why Gen. Williams may have thought refusing to let slaves stay in Union camps was a good idea.

2. In the first article, what reasons does Col. Paine give for refusing to send escaping slaves out of his camp? On what premises is his conclusion to disobey a direct order based?

3. Do you think Col. Paine made the right choice? Why? What is it that makes any choice right or wrong?

4. Was it right for Gen. Williams to punish Col. Paine? List several reasons why disciplined chain of command should be maintained during wartime.

5. Most people have sometimes exceeded the speed limit, told a little lie, or downloaded music. How do you decide when it is best to obey and when it is best to disobey a rule? If rules aren't your authority, what is?

6. If your conscience is to be your guide, how do you know it's not mistaken? Weren't the 9/11 hijackers probably following their consciences?

7. In 1776, the American colonies declared independence from England and set up a new government of their own. In 1861 the southern states declared independence from the U.S. and set up a new government of their own. Was the first action right and the second one wrong? Why?

8. Read Rev. Barry's description of two escaping slaves in "A Shameful History" and then read Perry's "Prize Story." Do you think they describe the same incident involving the same two escaping slaves? What evidence makes you suspect they are the same, or different?

9. We know exactly what happened to Col. Paine for the rest of his life but we cannot discover what happened to Old Steve, the central figure in Perry's account. Why? Why is there so much more historical information available about one than the other? In our society today, what kinds of people are likely to go undocumented?

10. Look at the iron collar removed from Old Steve's neck. How do you react as you examine it? How is that different from how you reacted to the newspaper articles?


Have students write an essay that identifies a real situation when they obeyed their conscience rather than external authority and explains why they believe that was the proper course of action.

Assessment: Students will be assessed on their reasoning sckills (logical connections between premises and conclusions), on the depth and breadth of their answers, and on the quality of their writing.

Possible Lesson Extensions: Have students apply the critical thinking skills required by this assignment to moral choices students must make in their personal lies (staying out past their parents' curfew, skipping classes, drinking) and on public issues (abortion, the war in Iraq, illegial immigration) that are not historical. This could be done through speeches to the class, live debates, or individual written assignments.

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