by Katherine Calhoun Cutshall (North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library)
In North Carolina, like other Southern states, free people of color experienced some freedoms not afforded their enslaved brethren. However, free blacks were not viewed as equal to other white citizens. At North Carolina’s constitutional convention in 1835, legislator James W. Bryan contended that he did “Not acknowledge any equality between the white man and the free negro” rather he stated, “the free negro is a citizen of necessity.”[ix]
The ruling in the petition case of James Casey, a free black man from Haywood County, reflects Bryan’s sentiment. He was one of only 63 free people of color in Haywood County, though this continued to decline over the next 30 years until 1860 there were only 14 free people of color in the area.[xi] Casey experienced the complications of his legal status as a free man of color when he was arrested and brought into Confederate Service in 1864.
Casey previously deeded his labor to a Mr. James Robert Love, an extremely wealthy farmer, slave owner, and businessman when he was about 25 years old. [x] Given the overall perceptions of free blacks in North Carolina, it is not surprising that James Casey sold his labor to J.R Love for a term of 99 years. It is likely he did so to secure his personal safety. This action probably helped him avoid some of the suspicion and restrictions placed upon him by the increasingly strict laws in North Carolina regarding free people of color.
In the midst of the American Civil War the Confederate States faced a shortage in almost all goods, including soldiers. As early as 1863 the suggestion of conscription of free black men and enslaved people was only somewhat seriously considered to reinforce the CSA’s already small but ever-dwindling numbers.[i] Some Confederates had called for “negro conscription” as early as 1863, but there was significant resistance by executive leadership. The Confederate Congress eventually came to terms with their need for more able-bodied soldiers and passed an act that called for the conscription of free blacks. However, in accordance with Confederate values, the law did not allow for black conscripts to apply for service exemptions like those provided ministers and large plantation owners. Some free blacks contested their conscription, but the rulings were generally not favorable.
On September 10, 1863, Casey was arrested by Confederate Lt. Robards under the pretense that he was liable to serve in the Confederate army per the conscription act, which sought to “increase the efficiency of the army by the employment of free negroes and slaves in certain capacities.”
Casey contested his conscription on the basis that he had bonded his labor to Mr. Love for a term of 99 years, essentially for life, and thus was not a truly free man and therefore liable to conscription.[xvii] After a case in County Court and a subsequent appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, it was decided that Casey, although he had deeded his labor to J.R Love for a “valuable consideration,” did not cease to be a free man in the eyes of the law. [xviii]
Casey’s effort to legally protect himself was futile. After the proceedings, it was decided that Casey was, in fact, liable to conscription. Casey appealed, faced again with his complicated legal status. A judge observed, “that the petitioner can only maintain his suit under the presumption that he is a free man, there is no middle ground upon which he can stand.”[xix] If Casey petitioned that “the effect of the deed to Love is to degrade him from the condition of a free man,” then he thereby reduced himself to a slave who could not legally petition in court.[xx]
James Casey’s petition put Confederate views on property ownership to the test. After his conscription, Casey found himself in a legal tug of war between rich white planters and the needs of the Confederate Military. Ultimately, James Casey’s fate came down to the whims of white confederates.
The legal climate for free people of color changed over the course of the 19th century as ideas about race and social order developed in the South. As the Civil War drew nigh, new rules and regulations in respect to free people harshened along with public opinion. In the end, James Casey served in some capacity with the waning Confederate army, but did so under the social circumstances allowed him because of his race. James Casey, neither fully slave nor fully free experienced the American Civil War as a “citizen of necessity.”
Courtesy of Katherine Calhoun Cutshall who works in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library