Remembering "Mississippi" Jenkins

By Dr. Paul Loatman Jr., City Historian

 

Here’s an easy question: When was slavery abolished in the United States? If you said, "sometime around the end of the Civil War in 1865," you’re close enough to be correct. Here’s a harder question: When was slavery abolished in our area? Surprised to learn that slaves were present in the Mechanicville-Stillwater-Halfmoon area? Although I had always known this to be a fact in an abstract way, the truth of it hit me more forcefully while I was reviewing federal census returns for the early nineteenth century, especially the 1820 census. Slaves were first brought here by Dutch farmers who attempted to settle the region around 1700 when the area was raw frontier Indian territory. Despite growing public disapproval, the practice continued for another 125 years until 1827.

At the time of the American Revolution, most Northern states abolished slavery, generally providing immediate emancipation within a few years of the issuance of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In most cases, Northern states had few slaves to emancipate, largely because slavery had never been profitable in cold climates, and religious groups like the Quakers who were active in the region had begun to prick the consciences of many in the North by challenging the morality of slavery. Somewhat surprisingly, New York was different insofar as it had the largest number of slaves in the region. Ever more surprising, Albany County (which included our area until 1791) had the largest number of slaves of any county in the state.

New York did not abolish slavery until 1799, providing only for gradual emancipation which was not fully implemented until 1827, while allowing children of slave mothers to be free if they were born after 1800. Practically speaking, what did this mean? Such a program created the anomaly, obvious in local census records, of a parent who was a slave who had children who were emancipated. Additionally, the presence of other larger, families of free Afro-Americans in both Stillwater and Halfmoon suggests that some owners of slaves may have freed them earlier than required to avoid the contradiction referred to above. The number of Afro-Americans in each township, slave and free, was about equal, but with a smaller overall population, Stillwater’s blacks constituted 3% of the total community in 1820, a much larger proportion than today.

Being reminded of all this during Black History Month and around the time of Lincoln’s Birthday brings to mind another link between our area and African-Americans. When most of us think of the Civil War, Elmer Ellsworth and others like him come to mind. But, there were other "local" veterans who fought against slavery who have remained practically invisible, probably because their attachment to the community was so tenuous. Skimming through the Stillwater and Halfmoon Town Clerks’ records of 1865 at the State Archives some time ago while ferreting out the names of local Civil War veterans, my eye caught the name of "Mississippi" Jenkins. This grabbed my attention immediately because it appeared to be so out of place, and upon closer look, I found others like it which then clarified the picture.

When the Civil War erupted, the backbone of the Union Army enlisted in small towns and villages in rural areas like Saratoga County. Patriotic ardor was high here; in the early years, going off to war seemed both adventurous and noble, while few recruits expected the war to last more than a few months. That soon changed, however, and as the war became bloodier, both the North and South had to resort to military drafts to fill their ranks. This move was not popular with many because the draft laws permitted wealthy citizens to buy an "exemption certificate" protecting them from serving. At least fifteen Halfmoon residents bought their way out of the army in this manner, according to the records. Pundits North and South now proclaimed that it was "a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight." By 1864, war-weariness had grown significantly, especially when the Northern public learned that General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander, had ordered his troops to pin their names and addresses on the backs of their uniforms before going into battle at Cold Harbor sot that those who were killed could be identified more quickly. In the first hour of that battle, 7,000 Union men went to meet their Maker. Now, the sturdy farmers of Stillwater and Halfmoon – as well as other rural areas across the state – were less willing to send their sons off to become cannon fodder for "Butcher" Grant, and there was a way out for them, as long as they were willing to tax themselves silly.

Each state was allotted a recruitment quota late in the war, which was then subdivided among the towns and cities throughout the state in proportion to population. Any difference between the number of enlistees and the local allotment quota was to be made up by the draft, but towns were also free to entice others – regardless of where they lived – to fill their quotas by offering them bounties. Before long, agents (often regarded as the lowest form of life because of their dishonesty) were traipsing the Union enticing recruits with promises of bounties which they pocketed before the new soldier even knew what happened. Prime recruiting areas included locales where slaves had been emancipated recently, and that’s where "Mississippi" Jenkins and other "local" veterans come into the picture.

Although he never set foot in Stillwater, and probably didn’t have a clue as to its location, "Mississippi" and other African-Americans like him are listed in the Stillwater and Halfmoon Town Clerk’s records as local recruits who were enrolled near Beaufort, South Carolina, by a bounty agent for a fee of $1,800. To put that figure into perspective, this sum represented more than two years’ wages of skilled craftsmen at the time. "Mississippi" never saw much, if any, of the $1,800; bounty agents regularly duped many recently emancipated ex-slaves in the Beaufort area (near present-day Hilton Head) into joining the army, an experience few of them were prepared for. Once the recruit was signed up, the bounty agent pocketed our local taxpayers’ money, and he was off to find another innocent mark. Because all towns in the state were competing with each other for a declining number of available able-bodied men, the cost of finding substitutes continued to mount, and localities throughout New York probably spent $100 million in this manner by the war’s end.

The fact that "Mississippi" Jenkins and other "substitutes" had little direct connection with our local communities does not belie the fact that they put themselves in harm’s way (even if unwittingly) so that local boys would not be in the same position. What happened to these men? It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell. Had they not been listed in the special Town Clerk’s Records of 1865, we would not even know of their existence. Nonetheless, they contributed to the history of our community and deserve to be remembered, some of them dying so that others might live.