Abraham Lincoln tangled with many Kentuckians about slavery. These included George Robertson, a prominent
judge who was also Lincoln’s
friend and correspondent.
Born in Mercer County
in 1780, Robertson was a lawyer, speaker of the Kentucky House, Kentucky secretary of
state, congressman, and chief justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. A prominent Whig politician, he and Lincoln
became friends in the 1840s.
relationship became troubled in September 1862, when Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the
Emancipation Proclamation. Robertson
complained to Lincoln
that Union troops were “forcibly detaining the slaves of Union
Kentuckians.” Robertson asked Lincoln to
prevent this, and the president drafted (but never sent) an irritated response,
noting that “I may as well surrender this contest, directly, as to make any
order, the obvious purpose of which would be to return fugitive slaves.”
Lincoln’s policies affected Robertson
when one of his slaves fled to the camp of the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry
Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Utley.
The colonel refused to return the slave and banned the judge from the
camp. Robertson had Utley indicted for
harboring a slave and sued the officer in U. S. District Court.
exasperated Utley wrote Lincoln about the
situation, and Lincoln
offered Robertson $500 if Utley could free the slave. Robertson refused, and in 1871, he received a
$935 judgment against Utley. Two years
later, however, the U. S. Treasury paid the bill. Thus, six years after the Civil War, the
federal government reimbursed Robertson for his lost slave.
Kentucky Historical Society Collections