The Price of Freedom

Claim for Compensation for Enlisted Slave; ca. 1866
National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri
Paper, ink

A “Claim for Compensation for Enlisted Slave” is an application that former slaveholders in border states that remained loyal to the Union could file after the Civil War in order to receive financial payment for slaves who had enlisted in the Union Army. In Missouri, such claim applications were first allowed due to General John Schoefield’s General Order 135, which stated any able-bodied black man could enlist in the Union army, regardless of whether his master was loyal or disloyal to the Union cause. After the war, however, two federal acts gave former slaveholders in border states the option to apply for financial restitution in case they had “lost” a slave to the promise of freedom by enlistment. With that, the American government recognized the right to claim a veteran of the Civil War as property.

Horace Kingsbury’s Claim for Compensation for Enlisted Slave speaks to the concept of African Americans as less than human, regardless of their right to freedom. Examining this claim raises the question: what does it mean to pay for a free man? Many former slaveholders continued to place a monetary value on their ex-slaves instead of viewing them as free and equal members of a new society that they allegedly wanted to build. Such fraught racial dynamics and double standards are especially relevant if we think about current events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. Kingsbury’s request for compensation was declined because his former slave Albert Cavanaugh was rejected from service four days after volunteering. While race relations have evolved between Kingsbury’s claim and the present, this form is an example of the long history of strained race relationships in the United States, even after the abolition of slavery. 


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Kayla Mabon