In November 1849, California applied for admission to the Union as a free state, forcing the issue of slavery to the forefront of American politics once again. Eventually a compromise was worked out between the free and slave states that came to be known as the Compromise of 1850. One major provisions of the compromise was that Congress passed a tough new fugitive slave law to help Southern owners reclaim runaway slaves who had fled to the North.
One of the first fugitive slaves to fall victim to the new law was Thomas Sims, an escapee from Georgia who was living in
Boston, Massachusetts when he was captured in April 1851. After a very public trial, Sims was ordered returned to his owner in Georgia. The prisoner was marched down the streets of Boston by a detachment of U.S. Marines through a very large, angry crowd of citizens, who watched the scene unfold. Sims was placed on a ship bound for Georgia, and sent back into bondage. Thomas Sims became a cause celebre throughout the North, and abolitionists used the case to rally others to their cause. Abolitionist J.W.C. Pennington, an escaped slave himself, wrote of the case, “Thomas Sims has been given over to his claimant and has been taken back into slavery. These cases are enough to break one’s heart. It is difficult to see how the enormous evil and crime of slavery can be carried to a greater extent. The whole land is full of blood.” – The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Thomas Sims spent 12 years in slavery after being returned, his bondage only ended by a daring escape from Vicksburg during the spring of 1863. The Boston Traveler reported the story on April 24, 1863:
A REMARKABLE INCIDENT – ESCAPE OF SIMS, THE FUGITIVE, FROM THE REBELS AT VICKSBURG
Thomas Sims, well known as the first of the persons sent South from this city, under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law, arrived here last night, with his family. He came direct from the vicinity of Vicksburg, having escaped from that city only three weeks ago. It will be remembered that the master of Sims resided in Savannah, Georgia, and that under the order of the U.S. Commissioner, Sims, at early dawn, was escorted by the police, under City Marshal Tukey, protected by the military, the whole under the direction of U.S. Marshal Freeman, to Central wharf, where he was placed on board a vessel which conveyed him to Savannah. Ever since that time he has been held as a slave. His fortunate escape from the rebels at this important period is certainly a remarkable and pleasing event.
From Mr. Sims we have gathered the following particulars of his experience since his enforced departure from this city: Sims says that after being taken back to Savannah he was kept in jail for a short time, and would have been severely punished but for the sympathy manifested for him at the North. Soon after, he was taken to Vicksburg, where he remained for ten or eleven years, working for the benefit of his master, at his trade as brick-layer. He is married, and has one child, about eight years of age.
He escaped from Vicksburg in a ‘dug out’ boat, accompanied by his wife and child and three other men. He started directly for Boston, and would have been here before had he not been detained at Cincinnati by the illness of his wife and child. His report is that the Rebels at Vicksburg are in a desperate condition. They have meat occasionally, but the larger portion of their living is bread and molasses. He thinks that within a year the rebels would give in, even if our army should not make any further move against them.
Sims remained in Vicksburg up to the time of his escape, but his wife had been removed to a plantation some miles out of the city. He and his friends having obtained the boat, which they concealed, determined to escape. He was allowed to go in and out of the city without restraint, and having hired a horse he went out at night and got his wife and child. They were fortunate in being able to pass the pickets, and with the men of the party they embarked in the boat and put out into the stream.
The men were all armed, and had determined, if discovered, to fight for their lives. It was a moonlight night, and at one point they passed near a rebel battery, but providentially the moon was obscured by a cloud just at that time, and they were not seen.
The fugitives report that the slaves are now allowed greater privileges than before the war commenced, and in consequence of there being little cotton planted their work is light. Sims and his wife are now stopping at the residence of his sister, Mrs. Sikes, living in Garden Street. He proposes to remain in this city. They came away comfortably clothed, but were able to bring nothing with them. Sims wore a new pair of shoes, for which he paid $20. They were clumsily made, and would sell here for about $1…Sims had an interview with General Grant after his escape, and received from him permission to pass through his lines en route for Boston. As he has been engaged for the past year in peddling amongst the soldiers, having bought his time of his master, he has undoubtedly acquired considerable knowledge of the sentiments of the troops. He says that their number has been largely overstated.
In connection with this event it might be stated that ever since his departure from Boston, efforts have been made to purchase Sims. The sum of one thousand dollars was raised here and offered to his master. It was declined, and $2000 asked; the sum of $1800 was then offered, but the breaking out of the war put a stop to further negotiations.
On April 25, 1863, the Boston Traveler had a follow-up article with more information about Sims’ escape:
Thomas Sims, whose second escape from slavery we mentioned yesterday, says the rebel force at Vicksburg, three weeks ago, was not more than five or six thousand men. Gen. Lee was in chief command, and Gen. M.L. Smith was associated with him. There were no stores of provisions at Vicksburg, or anywhere else, in that vicinity. Only a small portion of the inhabitants remained in the city, and those of the poorer class. These had received provisions form a ‘free market,’ but that source was about exhausted. Gen. Pemberton was at Jackson, but he had no army there.
The number of guns mounted at Vicksburg was seventy or eighty; few of these were more powerful than rifled 32’s. A short time since a 7-inch Dahlgren gun was mounted, and it was supposed that a shot from that gun destroyed the ram Switzerland, a few nights before he left.
Two of the men who escaped from Vicksburg with Sims, found employment on Porter’s fleet, although offered passes to the North. One came to New York, and the fourth, an intelligent young fellow, accompanied him to this city. The fugitives brought with them a few household treasures, keepsakes of friends, and daguerreotype pictures of dear relatives, still in bondage, but whom they hope soon to greet as free.
The life of Sims, with the story of his treatment since taken back to slavery, would make an interesting story, and probably it will be published in a small volume, at an early day.
Thomas Sims and his family arrived in Boston by late April, and within a matter of days he had his first public appearance before an audience that was eager to hear his story. On May 6, 1863, the Boston Herald ran the following ad for Sims’ presentation:
The Boston Traveler wrote the next day that Sims spoke for an hour and forty minutes, and that the freedman stated “His escape recently was not caused by ill treatment, but because he felt he had a right to be free. He had been well treated since his remandment to slavery. His appearance is that of an intelligent and energetic man, and he received frequent applause. His wife and child were on the platform.
Thomas Sims settled back into life in Boston, but being a celebrity, the newspapers published stories about him from time to time. On July 25, 1863, the Boston Traveler gave this report on local men who had been examined for possible conscription into the Union army:
In the Fourth District, 111 men were examined, and of them 96 were exempted, 12 offered accepted substitutes, and 4 were passed. Among the exempted was Thomas Sims, the well-known fugitive slave, on the ground that he belonged to the 2d class, he being upward of thirty-five years of age.
Sims did not become a soldier, but he found another way to aid the Union cause. On December 27, 1864, the Boston Traveler reported that “Thomas Sims, the fugitive slave, taken from Boston to Georgia, some years since, is now a recruiting agent at Nashville, Tenn.”
As a prominent former slave, Thomas Sims made quite an impression in Nashville. An unnamed Union officer wrote the following letter which was published in the Lowell Daily Citizen & News on December 30, 1864:
Among the curiosities of the time, however, is the presence here in Nashville of Thomas Sims, as a recruiting agent for colored
troops; Thomas Sims, to send whom back to slavery Boston got on its knees, shed its tears and brandished its weapons, and the whole United States trembled and shook; he, who was in his day the most famous of martyrs, is now a quiet, energetic recruiting agent to aid that very government which exhausted all its warlike powers and all the resources of statesmanship to return him to a state of slavery; or rather, not that same government, but the usurping power that then held the reins of government.
I think nothing could better illustrate the antagonism of the two powers than this incident, or give a more cheering indication of our progress and triumph. Ten years ago this man was dragged through the streets of Boston in the midst of the entire military and police of the city, to be returned to slavery, because what called itself ‘the government,’ said he must go back. Now, in the midst of the very community to which he was then sent a slave, he is laboring a free man to aid in the maintenance of free institutions – not in consequence of having purged himself of any crime but simply by a restoration of his manhood. How can any one doubt which is the Republic and which the Despotism?
There is one final mention of Sims I found that is worth quoting; at the very end of the war as the conflict was coming to a bloody end, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper made this brief mention of him on April 15, 1865:
Statesmen are commonly considered great in proportion to their possession of the gift of insight, but what statesman could have dreamed when Thomas Sims was carried down State street in Boston, as a fugitive slave, that in March, 1865, he would be in Huntsville, Ala., recruiting colored troops for the State of Massachusetts? This is the fact, but the man who ventured to predict four years ago would have been considered a candidate for the insane asylum.
News of Thomas Sims was harder to locate after the Civil War ended, but I did find a notice in the Kalamazoo Gazette on October 20, 1881, that he had started a job working in the Attorney General’s office in Washington, D.C. The man that gave Sims the position was Charles Devens Jr., the United States Attorney General himself. During the Civil War Devens had served as a general officer, but in 1851 he had been a United States Marshal, and it had been his duty to return Sims to the ship that bore him back into slavery. Devens had done his duty as a marshal, even though he did not agree with the court’s ruling. Later, when money was being raised to try and buy Sims’ freedom, Devens asked that he be allowed to pay the entire sum himself. The effort to buy Sims’ freedom came to naught, but over thirty years later Devens was in a position to make amends.
I tried to determine what happened to Thomas Sims after his appointment to a job with the Attorney General’s Office, but unfortunately, I could not find anything definitive regarding his life after 1881. If anyone has information about Thomas Sims’ later years, please contact me and I will post the information to this article.