Documents from Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867
Editorial Method and Copyright
The following are selected documents from the volumes of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. Like all documents published in Freedom, they are transcriptions (or, in a few cases, images) of originals housed in the National Archives of the United States. They have been transcribed exactly as written, with no correction of spelling, punctuation, or syntax and no editorial supply of absent punctuation. Extra space marks the end of sentences that lack terminal
punctuation or are punctuated unconventionally. Inferential readings of illegible or mutilated passages appear in brackets and roman type, [like this]; additions and corrections by the editors appear in brackets and italics, [like this]. Omission of material is indicated by a four-dot ellipsis centered on the line. Place and date lines appear on a single line at the top of each document, regardless of their placement in the manuscript. Inside addresses are omitted. Salutations and complimentary closings are run into the body of the document.
A full discussion of editorial method appears in each volume.
Because of the limitations of HTML and variations among web browsers and viewing devices, the documents presented here will not appear exactly as they do in the volumes of Freedom. For example, paragraphs are not indented but instead are set apart by blank lines. Graphical elements that cannot be reliably rendered online, including braces and wavy vertical lines alongside multi-line headings, have been omitted. In endnotes and footnotes, abbreviations in the editors' text and short titles in citations have been spelled out, so that users will not need to consult each volume's list of abbreviations.
Following each document is a citation to the original in the National Archives, as well as to the transcription published in Freedom.
Material from Freedom and other publications of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project is under copyright. It may be used without permission for teaching, research, and other noncommercial purposes. It may not be used for profit without permission from the publisher.
- Missouri Unionist to the Commander of the Department of the West, May 14, 1861; and the Commander's Reply, May 14, 1861
Writing to the Union commander at St. Louis, a white Missourian
sought and received assurances that the federal government would
- Commander of the Department of Virginia to the General-in-Chief of the Army, May 27, 1861
General Benjamin F. Butler, the federal commander at Fortress
Monroe, Virginia, explained his rationale for accepting and
providing for fugitive slaves who had come into his lines, despite the Union's commitment to noninterference with slavery.
Order by the Commander of the Corps of Observation, Army of the Potomac, September 23, 1861
In response to complaints that soldiers in his command were encouraging insubordination among slaves in the Union state of Maryland, General Charles P. Stone reminded his troops of their duty to uphold the laws, including those protecting slavery.
- Order by the Commander of the Department of Virginia, November 1, 1861
General John E. Wool, the Union commander at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, instituted an arrangement in which ex-slave men
employed by the army drew rations and were credited with wages – most of which were not paid to the workers but
applied to the support of ex-slave women, children, and aged or disabled men.
- Commander at Camp Nevin, Kentucky, to the Commander of the Department of the Cumberland, November 5, 1861; and the Latter's Reply, November 8, 1861
A general in the Union state of Kentucky found fugitive slaves
useful as military laborers, but hesitated to employ them for fear of
alienating their owners. His superior, General William T.
Sherman, directed him to avoid the dilemma by excluding runaways
from his lines altogether.
- Governor of Maryland to the Secretary of War, November 18, 1861
When a Maryland slaveowner trying to recover his fugitive slave was driven away from a camp of Massachusetts soldiers, he
appealed to Thomas H. Hicks, the governor of Maryland, who urged the Secretary of War to enforce the law,
protect slave property, and thereby ensure the state's loyalty.
Order by the Commander of the Department of the Missouri, November 20, 1861
The chief Union commander in the west, General Henry W. Halleck, cited military, rather than legal or political, grounds for excluding fugitive slaves from the lines of his army.
Black Ohioan to the Secretary of War, November 27, 1861
Initially barred from serving as Union soldiers, black men in parts of the North nevertheless formed militia companies and began drilling on their own. A freeman in Ohio beseeched Secretary of War Simon Cameron for a chance to strike a blow against the rebels.
Michigan Quaker to the Secretary of War, December 5, 1861
Writing to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a white Northerner denounced the Union's policy of turning away fugitive slaves as militarily counterproductive and morally bankrupt.
- Governor of Massachusetts to the Secretary of War, December 7, 1861, Enclosing an Excerpt from a Letter from an Unidentified Correspondent, November 28, 1861
Governor John A. Andrew protested when he
learned that soldiers from his state had been ordered to engage in the “dirty and despotic work”
of returning slaves to captivity.
- Commander of the South Carolina Expeditionary Corps to the Adjutant General of the Army, December 15, 1861
Left behind on plantations by owners fleeing federal invasion, former slaves on the South Carolina sea islands generally
remained in place and worked for themselves – to the annoyance of a commander of the invading force who had hoped to employ them as military laborers.
- Maryland Fugitive Slave to His Wife, January 12, 1862
For John Boston, the triumph of his own escape to freedom within Union lines was tainted by the resulting separation from his wife.
First page of manuscript (image, 437K)
- Northern Minister to a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, January 29, 1862
Writing to a U.S. senator from his home state of Massachusetts, an antislavery clergyman in Union-occupied Virginia denounced the army's exaction of forced, uncompensated labor from fugitive slaves and questioned federal policies that upheld slavery.
- Maryland Legislators to the Secretary of War, March 10, 1862, Enclosing Affidavit of a Maryland Slaveholder, March 1, 1862
Learning of incidents in which Union soldiers had thwarted attempts by slaveholders to recover escaped slaves, members of Maryland's General Assembly protested to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
Commander of the Department of North Carolina to the Secretary of War, March 21, 1862
When Union forces under General Ambrose E. Burnside captured New Bern, North Carolina, they received a warm welcome from the city's slaves, who were soon joined by hundreds of others from the surrounding countryside. Unsure how to proceed, Burnside turned to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for advice.
- Resolution by the Washington, D.C., City Council, April [1?], 1862
As the U.S. Congress considered a proposal to emancipate slaves
in the District of Columbia, Washington's City Council objected
that doing so would lead to the influx of an unwelcome population.
- Headquarters of the Defenses North of the Potomac to the
Commander of a New York Regiment, April 6, 1862
Citing a new article of war recently enacted by Congress and the valuable information slaves could provide, General Abner Doubleday instructed a regimental commander to admit fugitives into Union lines and treat them “as persons and not as chattels.”
- Chief Quartermaster of the Department of North Carolina to the Quartermaster General, April 26, 1862; and the Latter's Reply, May 6, 1862
Asked what to do with the fugitive slaves who were “continually coming in” to federal lines in North Carolina, the quartermaster general directed a subordinate to put as many as possible to work for the army.
Virginia Slaveholder to the Confederate Secretary of War, May 2, 1862
Much to the disgust of slaveholders, runaway slaves sometimes found refuge within the ranks of the Confederate army, some of whose soldiers valued the owners' property rights less than the comforts servants could provide. Lamenting the subversive effects of such practices, a Virginia slaveholder urged the Confederate secretary of war to prohibit soldiers from employing slaves without their owners' consent.
- Commander of the 3rd Division of the Army of the Ohio to the Secretary of War, May 4, 1862; and the Latter's Reply, May 5, 1862
When a Union general operating in northern Alabama informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he had promised protection to slaves who provided vital military information, Stanton approved, arguing that refusal to employ the services of slaves would handicap the Union war effort.
- Commander of the 2nd Brigade of the Northern District of the Department of the South to the Department Commander, May 10, 1862
Ordered to furnish men for a regiment of black soldiers being raised without War Department authorization by General David Hunter, a subordinate warned that doing so would both deprive the army of military laborers and hamper efforts to cultivate federally controlled cotton plantations.
- Proclamation by the President, May 19, 1862
After General David Hunter issued an order declaring free all the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, President Lincoln quickly overruled him and used the occasion to press his own plan for gradual emancipation, with compensation to owners.
Commander of the U.S.S. Dale to the Commander of the South Atlantic Squadron, June 13, 1862
Former slaves on Hutchinson's Island, South Carolina, whose owners had fled advancing federal forces in late 1861, remained in place and cultivated the land for themselves. Their new lives were upended, however, when a Confederate counterattack the following June killed dozens, carried others back into bondage, and destroyed the crops they had hoped would guarantee their livelihood.
Georgia Slaveholders to the Commander of the 3rd Division of the Confederate District of Georgia, August 1, 1862
Planters in Liberty County, Georgia, demanded stern action in response to widespread slave flight along the south Atlantic seaboard. Runaway slaves, they argued, were traitors who should be summarily executed under military law rather than prosecuted before slow-moving civil courts.
- Governor of Iowa to the General-in-Chief of the Army, August 5, 1862
Advocating employment of black men by the Union army on entirely pragmatic grounds, Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood argued that a black man could drive an army team or stop a bullet as well as a white man.
- Commander of the 5th Division of the Army of the Tennessee to a Tennessee Slaveholder, August 24, 1862
Writing to a former West Point classmate, General William T. Sherman explained why he would not return fugitive slaves to their owners.
- Order by the Commander of a Brigade in the Left Wing, Department of the Gulf, September 1862; and an Order by the Brigade Quartermaster, [September? 1862]
Union officers implemented strict rules to govern the fugitive slaves who had come into their camp near New Orleans, organizing most of the men into squads of military laborers.
- Committee of Chaplains and Surgeons to the Commander of the Department of the Missouri, December 29, 1862
Although by late 1862 the federal government had pledged to protect fugitive slaves and encouraged the employment of those capable of military labor, the promise of protection was often hollow, as three officers at Helena, Arkansas, reported.
- Northern Plantation Manager to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, January 5, 1863
The manager of a sugar plantation in southern Louisiana cultivated by ex-slave wage workers complained that black soldiers and three of their officers – who were themselves free men of color – were disrupting labor and threatening his life.
- Headquarters of a Confederate Cavalry Battalion to the Headquarters of the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, January 8, 1863
After capturing a former slave who had reached Union lines and then attempted to return home and liberate others, a Confederate officer asked his superiors how to deal with such “missionaries” of freedom.
- Louisiana Planters to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, January 14, 1863
Writing to Union General Nathaniel P. Banks, sugar planters lamented the effect of slave flight and Union military occupation on plantation operations.
- Military Governor of North Carolina to the Commander of the
Department of North Carolina, January 20, 1863
Outraged by an incident in which ex-slave military laborers – accompanied by stewards from a Union navy vessel and servants of federal army officers – forcibly liberated one of the laborers' families, slaveholders complained to Edward Stanly, whom President Lincoln had appointed military governor of North Carolina. Stanly conveyed their protest to the state's military commander.
- Commander of the Guard at Kenner, Louisiana, to the Headquarters of a Brigade in the Department of the Gulf, January 27, 1863
Former slaves employed by the army repairing levees near New Orleans, a Northern officer reported, were working and living in conditions that compared unfavorably to slavery.
- Louisiana Slave to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, March 4, 
Legally a slave because of southern Louisiana's exemption from the Emancipation Proclamation, Edith Jones of New Orleans offered to pay her mistress a monthly fee to allow her live on her own. When the owner refused and threatened instead to imprison her for safekeeping, Jones sought assistance from the Union commander in the city.
- Commander of the District of Eastern Arkansas to the Commander at Cairo, Illinois, March 11, 1863
Fugitive slaves escaped to Helena, Arkansas, in such numbers that the Union commander in the city deemed it best to transport hundreds of them up the Mississippi River to Cairo, Illinois, and other points North.
- General-in-Chief of the Army to the Commander of the Department of the Tennessee, March 31, 1863
General Henry W. Halleck privately advised General Ulysses S. Grant about the changing purposes of the war and the military benefits of emancipation.
- Louisiana Freedmen to the Provost Marshal General of the Department of the Gulf, April 5, 1863; and Statement of the Commander of Camp Hoyt, Louisiana, April 5, 1863
Former slaves living on a plantation in southern Louisiana that had been abandoned by its owner received a Union provost marshal's permission to farm it on their own, only to have another claimant challenge their right to do so. At the freedpeople's request, a federal officer reported on what they had accomplished.
- Black Former Officers in a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, April 7, 1863
By late 1862, Union troops in southern Louisiana included “Native Guard” regiments, composed of free black men under officers who were also men of color. General Benjamin F. Butler had permitted the black officers to continue to serve, but his successor, General Nathaniel P. Banks, forced all but a handful to resign. A group of ousted officers urged Banks to reconsider his position.
- Commander of the Department of the South to the Confederate President, April 23, 1863
After Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered that captured black Union soldiers not be treated as prisoners of war, but instead be turned over to Confederate state authorities for punishment ranging from reenslavement to execution, Union General David Hunter warned Davis that mistreatment of black soldiers or their officers would be met with swift retaliation.
- General Superintendent of Contrabands in the Department of the Tennessee to the Headquarters of the Department, April 29, 1863
Responding to a questionnaire circulated in early 1863, military superintendents of “contraband camps” in the Mississippi Valley (at Corinth, Mississippi; Lake Providence, Louisiana; Cairo, Illinois; and Memphis, Lagrange, Bolivar, Grand Junction, and Jackson, in western Tennessee) described the gritty reality of life in the settlements and evaluated the former slaves' prospects in freedom.
- Assistant Quartermaster at the Washington, D.C., Depot to the Chief Quartermaster of the Depot, May 1, 1863
In Washington, D.C., the Union war effort relied heavily on black military laborers, including both free men of color and ex-slave “contrabands.” After the government began deducting a $5 monthly tax from the wages of free-black workers, earmarked for the support of dependent former slaves, a quartermaster warned that valuable employees would quit in protest.
- Testimony by the Superintendent of
Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, before the American
Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, May 9, 1863
Captain Charles B. Wilder explained how fugitive slaves,
once having escaped to Union lines, worked to liberate fellow slaves and
spread the word of freedom deep in Confederate territory.
- Former Superintendent of the Poor in the Department of North
Carolina to the Chairman of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, May 25, 1863
Vincent Colyer, a Northern missionary who had supervised former slaves in Union-occupied North Carolina in 1862, described how they had assisted federal forces and supported themselves.
- Officer in a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Brigade, May 29, 1863
Writing to the chief recruiter of black troops in southern Louisiana, a Union officer praised the bravery of black soldiers in the battle of Port Hudson, many of whom had until recently been slaves.
- Testimony by a South Carolina Freedman before the American
Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, June 1863
Testifying before a War Department commission that was investigating the condition and prospects of ex-slaves, Harry McMillan discussed his people's lives in bondage and their aspirations in freedom.
Commander of the District of Northeastern Louisiana to the Headquarters of the Department of the Tennessee, June 12, 1863
A Union general described to his superiors the bloody battle of Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, the first test of combat for a brigade of newly enlisted black soldiers.
- Northern Minister to the Secretary of War, July 11, 1863
When federal authorities in Washington, D.C., could not obtain enough military laborers locally, they ordered the
forcible impressment of black men in coastal Virginia and North Carolina, wrenching hundreds from their homes and families.
Mississippi Slaveholder to the Confederate President, July 20, 1863
After the fall of Vicksburg gave the Union control over the entire Mississippi River, slaveowners transferred thousands of slaves to areas more securely in Confederate hands rather than lose them to the Yankees. Fearing that the large-scale removals would undermine slave discipline and burden the resources of receiving regions, a slaveholder in eastern Mississippi advised President Jefferson Davis that desperate times called for desperate measures – including the conscription of enslaved men for Confederate military service.
- Mother of a Northern Black Soldier to the President, July 31, 1863
Shortly after the battle of Fort Wagner, Hannah Johnson, the mother of a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, urged President Lincoln to guarantee the proper treatment of captured black soldiers. In measured but heartfelt words she defined the president's responsibilities to the soldiers and their families and demanded that he fulfill them.
First page of manuscript (image, 473K)
- ‣ Assistant Quartermaster at the Washington Depot to the Chief Quartermaster of the Depot, July 31, 1866
‣ Medical Director of the Department of Washington to the Surgeon General, September 4, 1863
In Washington, D.C., where military laborers were in chronically short supply, an officer proposed that many of the menial tasks performed by black men in the city's military hospitals be assigned to convalescing patients, thereby freeing the black men for service at the quartermaster's depot. His enumeration of the black workers' duties, however, unintentionally revealed how vital they were to the hospitals' operations.
Commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department to the Commander of the Confederate Army of the West, September 4, 1863
As federal forces threatened larger expanses of the South, Confederate commanders ordered the evacuation of slaves from endangered areas to prevent them from falling into Union hands. In a letter sent to each of his highest-ranking subordinates, General E. Kirby Smith, commander of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi River, emphasized that it was a question of removing slaves now or fighting them later.
- Commander of a North Carolina Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Brigade, September 13, 1863
Colonel James C. Beecher, commander of a regiment of former slaves from North Carolina, protested when his men were treated more like uniformed laborers than soldiers.
- Massachusetts Black Corporal to the President, September 28, 1863
On behalf of the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Corporal James Henry Gooding protested the injustice of the Union's paying its black soldiers – in this case, Northern free men – less than their white comrades.
- Inspecting Officer in the District of Northeastern Louisiana to the Headquarters of the District, October 10, 1863
Beginning in 1863, federal officials leased out abandoned cotton plantations along the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, mainly to Northern investors but also to a handful of freedmen judged competent to manage an estate. The lessees agreed to hire former slaves for wages and furnish subsistence to them and their families. But as an inspecting officer reported, raids by Confederate guerrillas, the lessees' cupidity, and other unfavorable circumstances beset the impoverished residents of most of the plantations.
- North Carolina Freedmen to the Commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, November 20, 1863
Black men who had been impressed to perform military labor for the Union army addressed an indignant petition to General Benjamin F. Butler.
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- Testimony by the Commissioner for the Organization of Black
Troops in Middle and East Tennessee before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, November 23, 1863
Major George L. Stearns described how the Union army's widespread employment of black men as military laborers and soldiers was undermining slavery in Tennessee, despite its continued legal standing.
- North Carolina Slaveholder to the Confederate President, November 25, 1863
In an area not far from Union lines, a patrol guard and a pack of hounds helped prevent slaves from running away – at least until members of the patrol were drafted into the Confederate army. A slaveholder asked President Jefferson Davis to return the patrol to its former duties.
- Marriage Certificate of a Black Soldier and His Wife, December 3, 1863 (image, 471K)
The marriage of two former slaves, Private Rufus Wright and Elisabeth Turner, was presided over by a black army chaplain, the Reverend Henry M. Turner.
- Commander of the U.S.S. Vermont to the Commander of the South Atlantic Squadron, December 9, 
A U.S. naval officer explained that his ship could not operate without the scores of black men who labored both on board and ashore.
- Testimony by a Northern Abolitionist before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, December 24, 1863
Francis W. Bird recounted his tour of the so-called government farms in southeastern Virginia, where former slaves lived and worked on estates seized from Confederate owners and supervised by the federal government.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, December 30, 1863
Martha Glover of Missouri, who remained enslaved after her
husband enlisted in the Union army, described to him the burdens
she and their children had borne since his departure.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, January 19, 1864
The wife of a slave who had enlisted in the Union army warned her husband against sending money in the care of her owner, in whose custody she remained, for fear he would intercept it.
- Memorandum by a Tennessee White Unionist, January 27? 1864
As slavery in Union-controlled Tennessee eroded despite the state's exclusion from the Emancipation Proclamation, many slaveholders chose to negotiate new terms of labor with their nominal slaves rather than risk losing them altogether
- Testimony by a Northern Woman, January? 1864
The wife of a Northern army chaplain recalled the fate of a settlement of black families that located with an officer's
permission near Fort Albany, in northern Virginia close to Washington, D.C., until an order from higher military
authority ousted them.
- Officer in a Missouri Black Regiment to the Superintendent of the Organization of Missouri Black Troops, February 1, 1864
Lieutenant William P. Deming relayed to General William A. Pile his men's complaints that slaveowners were punishing their wives and children by assigning them heavy work normally done by the men.
- Staff Assistant of the Superintendent of Freedmen for the State of Arkansas to the Superintendent, February 5, 1864
A Union officer reported on his visit to a woodyard established by private contractors on the banks of the Mississippi River and a nearby shantytown that was home to 183 former slaves, 96 of whom were “infirm & under age.”
Affidavit of a District of Columbia Freedman, February 6, 1864
In April 1862, Grandison Briscoe escaped from Maryland to Washington, D.C., together with his pregnant wife, an infant child, and his mother. Within days, however, a slave catcher returned his loved ones to bondage. Nearly two years later, Briscoe described their fate.
- Testimony by a Corporal in a Louisiana Black Regiment before the American
Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, February? 1864
After escaping slavery in 1861, Octave Johnson of Louisiana lived in the swamps for more than a year before entering Union lines near New Orleans.
- Plantation Regulations by a U.S. Treasury Agent, February 1864 (Image, 474K)
A broadside announced the rules governing the employment of black laborers on plantations in Union-occupied Louisiana.
- Chaplain of a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Division, April 8, 1864
For many black soldiers, entry into the Union army opened their first opportunity to acquire formal schooling – an opportunity the soldiers seized readily.
- Black New Yorker to the Secretary of War, April 18, 1864
Theodore Hodgkins of New York warned that failure to retaliate for the massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee – in which Confederate troops killed scores of Union soldiers, most of them black, after they had surrendered – would alienate black Americans from the Union cause.
- Black Soldier in Virginia to His Wife, April 22 and May 25, 1864
In letters to his wife, Private Rufus Wright not only described a battle in which his regiment participated but also passed along more mundane news.
- Black Sergeant to the Secretary of War, April 27, 1864
William J. Brown, a freeborn sergeant in a regiment composed mostly of former slaves, conveyed to the secretary of war his comrades' resentment that they were paid not only less than white soldiers, but also less than black civilian military laborers.
Commander of a Black Brigade to the Headquarters of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina and the 18th Army Corps, May 12, 1864
Only on rare occasions could former slaves turn the tables on their masters by administering the punishments they had long received. General Edward A. Wild, commander of a brigade of black soldiers, reported one such occasion to a superior officer who had accused him of violating the rules of civilized warfare.
- Black Acting Chaplain to the Secretary of State, May 18, 1864
Unwilling to appoint black men to military positions that entailed authority over white men, until early 1865 the U.S. War Department refused to commission black men as line officers, no matter what their qualifications. Applications for commissions as chaplains and surgeons – positions that did not involve battlefield command – were received with somewhat more favor.
- Adjutant General of the Army to the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Military Affairs, May 30, 1864
Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, who was in charge of recruiting black soldiers in the Mississippi Valley, praised the men's military performance and, in so doing, added his voice to those advocating equal pay for black soldiers and their white counterparts.
- Provost Marshal of Freedmen in the Department of the Tennessee to the Adjutant General of the Army, June 15, 1864
Colonel Samuel Thomas reported on the condition and prospects of the former slaves cultivating leased plantations along the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi. Although most of the freedpeople in that war-torn district were wage workers for Northern lessees, some were renters farming independently.
- Treasury Department Inspector of Plantations to the Superintendent of Plantations in the Treasury Department 5th Special Agency, June 16, 1864
A civilian Treasury Department official in Louisiana charged with supervising “government plantations” – federally controlled estates leased out to investors and cultivated by ex-slave wage workers – complained that black soldiers were undermining his authority and encouraging unrest among the field hands.
- Soldiers of a Massachusetts Black Regiment to the President, July 16, 1864
Since July 1863, black soldiers in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry had refused to accept unequal compensation with white soldiers – a stand that came at considerable cost, including the impoverishment of many of their families. A year after opening their protest, convinced that the government had still not acted to correct the injustice, members of the 55th Massachusetts petitioned President Lincoln for immediate discharge and settlement of accounts.
Maryland Former Slave to the Secretary of War, July 26, 1864
Writing from Boston, John Q. A. Dennis, who had become free only eight months earlier, asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to authorize him to take his children from the slaveowners who still held them in bondage.
- South Carolina Black Minister to the Commander of the Department of the South, August 12, 1864
On behalf of freedpeople in Mitchelville, South Carolina, Abram Mercherson protested that white Union soldiers, on the pretext of recruiting black men, were entering the community at night and wreaking violence on its residents.
- Maryland Black Soldier to the Mother of a Dead Comrade, August 19, 1864
A black soldier from Maryland consoled the mother of a friend who had died in combat.
- Maryland Slave to the President, August 25, 1864
Maryland's exclusion from the Emancipation Proclamation left Annie Davis still enslaved. Insistent on her right to freedom, she demanded that President Abraham Lincoln clarify her status.
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- Acting General Superintendent of Contrabands in the South Carolina Sea Islands to the Provost Marshal General of the Department of the South, August 25, 1864
Displeased by former slaves' traveling about, fishing, or doing odd jobs instead of working steadily for a single employer, a newly appointed superintendent of contrabands proposed remedies informed by Northern practices regarding poor relief and vagrancy.
- New York Black Soldier to the President, [August] 1864
Writing anonymously, a Northern black soldier stationed in Louisiana described the toll that hard labor and short rations were taking on the men of his regiment.
- Commander of a Black Brigade to the Commander of the District of
Eastern Virginia, September 1, 1864
When a group of ex-slave men working as Union military laborers returned home to liberate families and friends, they were accompanied by a detachment of black soldiers. The soldiers' brigade commander reported the outcome of the dangerous expedition.
- Missouri Black Soldier to His Enslaved Daughters, and to the Owner of One of His Daughters, September 3, 1864
Private Spotswood Rice promised his daughters – and warned the woman who owned one of them – that their liberation was at hand.
- Superintendent of the Organization of Kentucky Black Troops to the Adjutant General of the Army, October 20, 1864
General James S. Brisbin described to his superiors how the “jeers and taunts” that white Union soldiers had directed toward newly enlisted black soldiers were silenced by the latter's bravery under fire.
- Maryland Lighthouse Keeper to a Baltimore Judge, November 6, 1864
Shortly after a new state constitution abolished slavery in Maryland, a unionist observer described the efforts of local citizens to nullify the former slaves' freedom.
- Maryland Black Minister to the Superintendent of the Middle Department Freedman's Bureau, November 11, 1864
A black minister in Baltimore, Maryland, informed a military official that a secessionist family was forcibly retaining black people in bondage, defying the state's recent abolition of slavery.
- Statement of a Maryland Freedwoman, November 14, 1864
Freed by the adoption of a new state constitution that abolished slavery, Jane Kamper contested her former owner's attempt to keep her children under his control by having them apprenticed to him.
- Mother of a Pennsylvania Black Soldier to the President, November 21, 1864
Apprehensive about her son's safety and her own welfare, the elderly mother of a black soldier petitioned President Lincoln for his release from further service, on the grounds that he was her sole support.
- Provost Marshal at Annapolis, Maryland, to the Commander of the Post of Annapolis, November 23, 1864; Enclosing a Letter from the Judges of the Orphans Court of Anne Arundel County to the Provost Marshal, November 22, 1864
Scarcely had slavery ended in Maryland than former slaveowners sought to retain control over the labor of black people by having ex-slave children bound to them as apprentices, often over the objections of the children's parents.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, November 26, 1864
Threatened by their owner, the wife and children of Joseph Miller had accompanied him when he enlisted in the Union army. Miller described the ordeal that followed the expulsion of his family from the camp in which they took refuge.
- Kentucky Black Soldier to the President, December 4, 1864
A black soldier unsuccessfully sought a discharge so that he could provide for his wife and children, whose owner refused to maintain them.
- Escaped Union Prisoners of War to the Provost Marshal General of
the Department of the South, December 7, 1864
Two captured Union officers who slipped their guards in Charleston, South Carolina, recounted the saga of their safe return to federal lines with the help of the city's free and enslaved black people and German immigrants.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, December 15, 1864
A black soldier at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, protested the expulsion of his wife and ailing daughter from the camp, where they had taken refuge after being threatened by their owner.
Commander of the 3rd Separate Brigade, 8th Army Corps, to the Headquarters of the Middle Department and 8th Army Corps, December 15, 1864, Enclosing a Circular by the Brigade Commander, December 6, 1864
General Henry H. Lockwood reported how the apprenticeship system in Maryland worked, and to whose benefit.
- Louisiana Black Sergeant to the Commander of a Louisiana Black Brigade, December 27, 1864
Recounting his regiment's battlefield success, a black sergeant stationed in Florida felt confident that the general who had supervised recruitment in his home state would grant him a “Small favor.”
- Black Residents of Nashville, Tennessee, to the Union Convention of Tennessee, January 9, 1865
In a petition to a convention of white unionists that was considering reorganization of the state government and the abolition of slavery, black Tennesseans argued that black men were fit to exercise all the privileges of citizenship.
- Provost Marshal of the 2nd Subdistrict of North Missouri to the
Provost Marshal General of the Department of the Missouri, January 12, 1865
Expecting a state constitutional convention to abolish slavery, some slaveholders in Missouri showed less interest in retaining their slaves than in shedding responsibility for them, a Union officer informed his superior.
- Meeting between Black Religious Leaders and Union Military Authorities, January 12, 1865
A Northern newspaper reported the proceedings of a remarkable gathering in Savannah, Georgia, in which twenty black ministers and lay leaders met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General William T. Sherman to consider the future of the thousands of slaves freed by the march of Sherman's army.
- Order by the Commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, January 16, 1865
Intending chiefly to disencumber his army of the fugitive slaves who had followed its march to Savannah, General William T. Sherman reserved a swath of land along the south Atlantic coast for settlement exclusively by former slaves, promising the settlers “possessory title” to forty-acre tracts.
Kentucky Black Soldier to the Secretary of War, January 26, 1865, Enclosing Two Letters
Private Aaron Oats believed that his service to the Union entitled him to assistance in liberating his family. In a letter to the secretary of war, Oats enclosed two letters he had received, one from his wife and the other from her owner.
- Chaplain of a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Regimental Adjutant, February 1, 1865
In a report to the Bureau of Colored Troops, the white chaplain of a Louisiana black regiment described the changes he had witnessed among his men since their enlistment.
- Chaplain of an Arkansas Black Regiment to the Adjutant General of the Army, February 28, 1865
The chaplain of a black regiment in Arkansas noted the importance of marriage to the freedpeople, who regarded their wartime emancipation as a step toward “an honorable Citizenship.”
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier's Widow, March 25, 1865
After her husband enlisted in the Union army in late 1864, Patsy Leach endured abuse at the hands of their enraged owner, a Confederate sympathizer in Kentucky. Fearing for her life, she fled with her youngest child, leaving four other children behind.
Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, March 29, 1865
When Congress adopted a joint resolution in March 1865 freeing the wife, children, and mother of every black soldier, slave men in Kentucky (where slavery remained legal) responded with a renewed surge of enlistments. Slaveowners threatened volunteers and their families with violence, and local police and slave patrols tried to obstruct slaves' flight to recruitment centers. A soldier recounted how he and his wife had been foiled in their first attempt to escape.
Missouri White Farmer or Farm Laborer to a White Farmer, Spring? 1865
A farmer or farm laborer addressed a courteous protest to a neighbor who had introduced a black settler into the area, possibly as a renter or hired hand.
- Resolutions Adopted by a Meeting of Virginia Employers, May 31, 1865
Hoping to dictate uniform terms under which former slaves would be employed and thereby prevent the emergence of a competitive labor market, landowners in one Virginia neighborhood proposed to fix wages at subsistence levels and restrict the freedpeople's ability to move about without their former owners' permission.
Louisiana Black Soldier to the Secretary of War, May 1865
Seventeen-year-old Warren Hamelton, a soldier who had been imprisoned for desertion, appealed his conviction on the grounds that the government had failed to fulfill its obligations to him and he was therefore unable to support his mother.
- Report by a Plantation Lessee in Louisiana, May? 1865 (Image, 624K)
The lessee of a plantation in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, recorded the wages and deductions from wages of 133 freedpeople employed on the place, as well as remarks on their labor performance.
North Carolina Black Soldiers to the Freedmen's Bureau
Commissioner, May or June 1865
At the end of the war, black soldiers stationed near Petersburg, Virginia, wrote to the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau to protest the suffering of their wives, children, and parents at a settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
Contract between an Alabama Planter and Alabama Freedpeople, [June 1, 1865]
The contract between W. C. Penick and his former slaves specified their work obligations in exhaustive detail.
- Chaplain of a South Carolina Black Regiment to the Aide-de-Camp of the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, June 7, 1865, Enclosing Affidavits of Three Georgia Freedmen
After safely reaching Savannah from the interior of Georgia, three freedmen recounted their harrowing escapes from former owners determined to keep them and other ex-slaves locked in bondage.
- Chairman of the Orangeburg, South Carolina, Commission on Contracts to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, June 12, 1865, Enclosing a Speech to the Freedpeople, [June 1865]; and the Commissioner's Reply, June 21, 1865
Addressing mass meetings of ex-slaves, Captain Charles Soule, a young Northern officer, advised them not to expect too much from freedom.
Officer in a Massachusetts Black Regiment to the Headquarters of the Northern District of the Department of the South, June 17, 1865
Charged with arranging labor contracts between rice planters and former slaves – some of whom had been occupying the plantations on their own during their former owners' wartime absence – a Union officer enumerated the many issues in dispute between landowners and laborers.
South Carolina Planters to the Commander of the Northern District of the Department of the South, June 20, 1865
Having returned to estates they abandoned during the war, planters along the Cooper River asked a Union commander to define their rights as property owners and employers.
- Delegation of Black Kentuckians to the President, late June, 1865
Fearing that President Andrew Johnson might lift martial law in Kentucky – a Union state where slavery was still in force – six black men traveled to Washington to inform him of “the terrible uncertainty of their future” under the state's oppressive laws.
Contract between a Georgia Planter and Georgia Freedpeople, July 8, 1865
The contract between McQueen McIntosh and the freedpeople on his plantation not only enumerated the workers' labor obligations, but also prescribed their personal comportment, instituted fines for damaged or stolen tools, and charged the support of all nonworking freedpeople against the laborers' wages.
‣ Mayor and City Commissioners of Wilmington, North Carolina, to the Provisional Governor of North Carolina, July 12, 1865
‣ Commander of the District of Wilmington to the Headquarters of the Department of North Carolina, July 26, 1865
Uneasy municipal authorities in Wilmington regarded public assertiveness by the city's black residents and the presence of black soldiers as portents of insurrection. The district military commander, however, dismissed such fears as groundless.
Ordinance by the Board of Police of Opelousas, Louisiana, as Printed in a New Orleans Newspaper, July 15, 1865
Municipal authorities in Opelousas, Louisiana, responded to the end of slavery by imposing harsh restrictions on former slaves, including a prohibition on residence in the town unless they were at work for a white employer.
- Statement of a North Carolina Employer, July 21, 1865
The employer of a former slave named Sarah described escalating conflict over the spinning with which she was tasked and the “insolence” of her manner. As tempers flared, the employer had called on Sarah's husband to make her behave, but when he refused to do so and also became “insolent,” the employer summoned the county police to remove them from the place.
Statement of Alabama Freedpeople, [July 24, 1865]
Thirteen former slaves signed a statement expressing their willingness to work for their former owner “as heretofore,” with no compensation beyond food and clothing.
Order by the Secretary of War, July 25, 1865
In an important step toward equality before the law, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton nullified military orders that imposed pass systems or “any restraints or punishments” on black people that did not apply to white people as well.
- Tennessee Freedmen to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for Kentucky, Tennessee, and Northern Alabama, July 27, 1865
Convinced that their newfound liberty was imperiled by hostile former slaveholders and restrictive slave-era laws, freedmen in Lincoln County, Tennessee, sought the appointment of a Freedmen's Bureau agent for their locality and asserted their right to equality before the law.
- Affidavit of a Black Soldier's Widow, August 1, 1865
More than a year after her husband's death in battle, the widow of a black soldier sought to recover the pay due him.
- Northern Teacher to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, August 4, 1865
Resolutions adopted by freedpeople at an emancipation celebration in northern Virginia affirmed the centrality of land to their future welfare.
Michigan Black Sergeant to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, August 7, 1865
A black sergeant stationed in South Carolina after the war complained to the state's military commander when a post commander failed to render justice to a freedman who had applied to him for assistance.
- Committee of North Carolina Freedmen to the North Carolina Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, August 7, 1865; and the Latter's Reply, August 16, 1865
Freedmen in eastern North Carolina organized a “Joint Stock” company to raise money with which to purchase land.
- Tennessee Unionist to the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, August 8, 1865
Left behind when their Confederate owner fled before a Union advance in 1863, slaves on a farm in Tennessee supported themselves independently until near the war's end, when the proprietor's return threatened their hard-won self-sufficiency.
- Statement by a Discharged Virginia Black Soldier, August 11, 1865
Attempting to reunite with his wife and children after his discharge from the Union army, John Berry was forcibly turned away by their former owner, who resented Berry's service against the Confederacy.
Former Alabama Slave to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Subdistrict of Louisville, August 14, 1865, Enclosing the Former Slave's Affidavit
Liberated by Union forces in northern Alabama in 1862, twelve-year-old Amy Moore, her younger sisters, and her mother were reenslaved in 1863 under a Kentucky law that prohibited freed slaves from entering the state on pain of arrest as runaways. Still in bondage months after the end of the Civil War, Moore recounted how she and the other members of her family had been jailed and sold at auction.
- Cases Adjudicated by the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Gordonsville, Virginia, August 16–September 13, 1865
A register kept by Captain T. Franklin P. Crandon recorded the cases brought before him and the actions he took.
- Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, August 17, 1865
Former slaves on St. Helena Island had been living as free people ever since the arrival of federal forces in late 1861 and the flight of their owners. A Freedmen's Bureau agent described the local police force they had established for self-protection, the landholdings and other property they had acquired, and the proud position they now assumed in encounters with men and women who had once held them in bondage.
Statement of a Refugeed Mississippi Freedman, August 18, 1865
Jim Mackafee, a slave in Mississippi, was taken by his owner to Virginia during the war, but escaped and became a military laborer for the Union army. After the war, he wanted to rejoin his family in Mississippi but could not afford the passage.
Missouri Black Soldier to the Secretary of War, August 22, 1865
On behalf of comrades from Missouri and Tennessee, a black soldier wrote to the secretary of war concerning the men's concern about their families, their dissatisfaction with routine duties, and their disdain for a particularly obnoxious officer.
- Statement of a Virginia Freedman, August 24, 1865
Jacob Thomas twice attempted to visit relatives still held as slaves, only to be forcibly driven away.
- Testimony by Two North Carolina Freedwomen against Their Former Owner, [August 1865?]
A former slave and her daughter recounted the brutality they had experienced at the hands of former owners bent on denying their freedom.
‣ Maryland Labor Broker to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, September 4, 1865
‣ Affidavit of a Former Employee of a Maryland Labor Broker, September 25, 1865
Emancipation meant profits for entrepreneurs like Oliver Wood of Baltimore, who recruited freedpeople in areas where work was hard to come by and, for a fee, supplied them to short-handed employers elsewhere. Wood complained that unscrupulous persons were hiring laborers he had procured without paying his commission, but numerous observers – including a former employee – affirmed that Wood, too, engaged in shady dealings.
Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, September 5, 1865
By the summer of 1865, some 40,000 freedpeople had taken up residence on land in coastal South Carolina and Georgia assigned to them under a January order by General William T. Sherman. As ex-Confederate proprietors applied to reclaim the land and dispossess the black settlers, General Rufus Saxton, the Freedmen's Bureau official in charge of the Sherman reserve, implored the bureau's commissioner to honor the promises made to the freedpeople.
Statement by a Tennessee Black Sergeant, September 11, 1865
For former Confederates, nothing more vividly demonstrated the humiliation of their defeat than the presence of black soldiers. Two white policemen in Memphis vented their anger against a black sergeant who refused to be cowed by threats.
- Affidavit of a Tennessee Freedman, September 13, 1865
After the war, a former slave from Tennessee described the horrific consequences of his failed bid to reach Union lines in 1864.
- Maryland White Unionist to the District of Columbia Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, September 14, 1865; and Affidavit of a Maryland Freedwoman, September 18, 1865
When Derinda Smothers's fourteen-year-old son ran away from their former owner, to whom he had been apprenticed without her consent, the boy was recaptured and punished with a whipping, while Smothers was jailed for encouraging his escape.
Freedmen's Bureau Inspector General for Missouri and Arkansas to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for Missouri and Arkansas, September 18, 1865
Reporting on an inspection tour in Arkansas, Colonel Dennis H. Williams lauded the success of former slaves who were farming independently on plots leased from the federal government near Helena and on a “home farm” near Pine Bluff inhabited mainly by women, children, and disabled men.
Complaints by North Carolina Freedmen before the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Southern District of North Carolina, September 19–October 1, 1865
In 1865, many former slaves worked under informal arrangements in which they expected to receive a share of the crop they produced. Cases adjudicated by a Freedmen's Bureau superintendent at Wilmington, North Carolina, illustrated employers' exploitation of such arrangements to deny freedpeople compensation for their labor.
- Commander of U.S. Forces at Columbia, Louisiana, to the
Headquarters of the Western District of Louisiana, September 20, 1865, Enclosing a Labor Contract, [August 1, 1865]
A military commander in Louisiana believed that, in terms of material welfare and conditions of labor, freedpeople in the vicinity of his post were faring as badly or worse than they had as slaves.
- Order by the Commander of a Kentucky Black Regiment, October 5, 1865
When former slaves in a Mississippi town sought to establish a school, they enlisted the aid of two noncommissioned officers in a black regiment stationed nearby.
Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the Headquarters of the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for Kentucky and Tennessee, October 6, 1865
In a white-majority area of east Tennessee where former slaveholders had begun to rent land to ex-slaves, poor whites mobilized against the freedpeople, intent on driving them away.
- Kentucky Black Sergeant to the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, October 8, 1865
In a letter to an official of the Freedmen's Bureau, Sergeant John Sweeny of Kentucky emphasized the importance of education to his people.
First page of manuscript (Image, 2.2 MB)
- ‣ Committee of Freedmen on Edisto Island, South Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner [October 20 or 21, 1865]; and the Latter's Reply, October 22, 1865
‣ Committee of Freedmen on Edisto Island, South Carolina, to the President, October 28, 1865
In two eloquent petitions, freedpeople voiced outrage at news that the land they had been promised was to be restored to its former owners.
- Tennessee Freedwoman to the Commander of the Department of the Tennessee, October 24, 1865
After benefiting from a lifetime of Mary Gillespy's labor in slavery, her former owner refused to support her in freedom. Elderly, infirm, and with nowhere else to turn, she appealed to federal authorities for assistance.
Arkansas Planter to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Memphis, Tennessee, October 25, 1865
On a plantation in Arkansas, a dispute that began with a freedman cursing the overseer escalated into a confrontation in which most of the workers threatened to quit.
- White Tennessean to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Subdistrict of Memphis, Tennessee, October 30, 1865
Fearing that armed and unruly freedpeople were planning to forcibly seize the property of white landowners, a resident of west Tennesssee implored federal authorities to take preventive measures.
Provost Marshal of Jefferson and Orleans Parishes (Right Bank), Louisiana, to the Headquarters of the Louisiana Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, November 7, 1865
In the parishes near New Orleans, where plantations had been cultivated by ex-slave laborers under federal auspices during the war, emancipation was a well-established fact by 1865. But the transition to free labor was complicated by former Confederates' resistance to the new order, by freedpeople's dislike of yearlong contracts, and by the attractions of urban life.
Officer in a Kentucky Black Regiment to the Headquarters of the Regiment, November 15, 1865
Armed with an order from General John M. Palmer, the military commander in Kentucky, a black sergeant attempted to move his wife from the home of her former owner, only to be jailed by civil authorities. His company commander recounted the episode to the commander of the regiment, whose endorsement and that of General Palmer indicated that such persecution of black soldiers was common.
- Tennessee Black Soldier to the Commander of the Military Division of the Tennessee, November 19, 1865; and Commander of a Tennessee Black Regiment to Division Headquarters, December 14, 1865
A black soldier stationed in Alabama protested that his regimental officers forbade the wives of the enlisted men to visit camp, prompting his regimental commander to defend the need for stringent discipline and cast aspersions on the men's attachment to the women they regarded as their wives.
- Statement of a Mississippi Freedman, November 21, 1865
Two freedmen preparing to cultivate land they had rented were warned by white neighbors that their presence was not welcome.
- Georgia Freedmen to the Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner at Savannah, Georgia, November 28, 1865
Amid hard-fought negotiations over labor contracts for the coming year, ex-slaves in coastal Georgia indignantly rejected offers that failed to provide for nonworking members of the laborers' families.
Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner for the District of East Texas to the Texas Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, November 30, 1865
In parts of Texas that were distant from federal forces, nominally free people remained in bondage months after the Confederate surrender.
South Carolina Planter to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, [early December, 1865]
Decrying the subversive influence of black soldiers, a planter in Beaufort District, South Carolina, offered a litany of complaints about the work and deportment of former slaves and asked that white soldiers be sent to head off an uprising.
- Mississippi Freedpeople to the Governor of Mississippi, December 3, 1865
Avowing their willingness to labor and denying any intention of rising in insurrection, freedpeople denounced the oppressive laws recently enacted by the state legislature.
- Mississippi Freedman to His Wife in Virginia, December 4, 1865
Having agreed to work a parcel of his former owner's land on shares, Moses Scott hoped to secure the assistance of his wife and children, from whom he had been separated.
- South Carolina Freedman to the South Carolina Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, December 8, 1865
When planters on Wadmalaw Island attempted to reclaim estates that were being cultivated by former slaves, the freedpeople resisted. If the owners would not sell them the land, Shadrack Seabrook declared, they preferred to leave the state rather than remain as hired laborers.
Proceedings of a Meeting of Virginia Freedpeople, December 12, 1865
Presenting themselves as respectable, churchgoing people, former slaves in Middlesex County, Virginia, protested that their employers were turning them off without pay and sought the assistance of the Freedmen's Bureau in securing to them what was “right and Just befor God and the citizen world.”
‣ South Carolina Planters to an Adjutant of the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, December 14, 1865
‣ Aide-de-Camp of the Commander of the Military District of Charleston to the District Headquarters, December 22, 1865
After President Andrew Johnson ordered the restoration to former owners of land in coastal South Carolina and Georgia that had been set apart for former slaves, planters began returning to their old estates. They had to reckon, however, with ex-slaves who had worked the land as free people, viewed it as rightfully theirs, and had no intention of becoming wage laborers. On James Island, freedpeople took up arms to repel a visit by planters seeking to persuade them to sign labor contracts.
- Broadside by the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent at Shreveport, Louisiana, December 16, 1865
Dismissing rumors that freedpeople would receive land from the federal government at the end of the year, a Freedmen's Bureau agent warned those who had not yet entered into labor contracts for 1866 to do so immediately.
- Mississippi Black Soldier to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, December 16, 1865
Outraged by Mississippi's newly enacted black code and by outbreaks of violence against freedpeople, Private Calvin Holly wrote the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner to describe conditions and propose a solution.
White Floridians to the Provisional Governor of Florida, December 23, 1865; and Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent of Education to the Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, December 26, 1865
Alarmed by rumors that an “immense” number of freedpeople planned to assemble on Christmas Day, with evil intent, white Floridians sought military intervention. A Freedmen's Bureau official sent to learn the meeting's purpose reported on his investigation.
- Black Residents of Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Congress, December 1865
Presenting themselves as respectable, tax-paying citizens who had answered the Union's call to arms far more readily than their white neighbors, some 2,500 black residents of the District of Columbia asked Congress to grant them the suffrage – without which they were “but nominally free.”
- Commander of a Missouri Black Regiment to the Officers and Men of the Regiment, January 4, 1866
Addressing the officers and men of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry as his association with them was ending, the regiment's commander lauded their role in the struggle against slavery and advised the men about conducting themselves as free citizens.
South Carolina Planter to the Commander of the Military District of Charleston, January 6, 1866
Threatened with dispossession of land they had been assigned under General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order 15, freedpeople on Wadmalaw Island were on high alert when two former planters and a Freedmen's Bureau agent arrived to take a census that would begin the process.
- South Carolina Black Soldier to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, January 13, 1866
With Union victory won and emancipation secure, the spokesman for soldiers in a black regiment asked their departmental commander to allow them to leave the service and rejoin families who were suffering in their absence.
- Freedmen's Bureau Agent at Brentsville, Virginia, to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the 10th District of Virginia, January 15, 1866
A Freedmen's Bureau agent described the hostility of white civilians toward discharged black soldiers, including the shooting and beating of one veteran for daring to express pride in his service.
South Carolina Freedmen to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, January 17, 1866
During hard-fought negotiations over labor contracts for 1866, freedmen in South Carolina's Georgetown District disputed allegations that former slaves were unwilling to work. What they were not willing to do, they insisted, was work under the oppressive terms employers were offering.
Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the District of Mobile, Alabama, to the Headquarters of the Alabama Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, January 22, 1866
A recently adopted city ordinance requiring draymen and hack and cab drivers to give a $500 bond in order to procure a license put black men at a heavy disadvantage, reported a Freedmen's Bureau agent who argued for its repeal.
- Mississippi Freedman to the Mississippi Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, January 25, 1866
Contrasting freedpeople's wartime loyalty to the Union with their white neighbors' treason, Merryman Howard denounced Mississippi's oppressive laws as a travesty of freedom and an obstacle to ex-slaves' pursuit of economic independence.
- Freedmen's Bureau Acting Subassistant Commissioner for Johns, James, Wadmalaw, and Morris Islands, South Carolina, to the Headquarters of the South Carolina Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, January 30, 1866
On the sea islands south of Charleston, former slaves who had settled on land set apart by General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order 15 mobilized to resist its return to the former owners. A Freedmen's Bureau agent described the continued arrival of impoverished former slaves from the mainland and the determination of those who held forty-acre plots not to be reduced from independent producers to hired laborers.
Georgia Freedwoman to the Freedmen's Bureau Acting Assistant Commissioner for Georgia, February 5, 1866
Harriet Hill, a mother of seven, expected to be joined by her three working-aged children when she contracted to work for a landowner for half the crop. But their former owner forcibly prevented them from leaving his place, thereby thwarting her effort to unite her family and jeopardizing her ability to support her four younger children.
- Statement of a Tennessee Freedwoman, February 27, 1866
Months after the war, one of four black women whose work in military hospitals had taken them to Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama recounted their travels before a Freedmen's Bureau official to whom they had applied for assistance in recovering unpaid wages.
- Chaplain of an Arkansas Black Regiment to the Adjutant General of the Army, February 28, 1866
Black soldiers stationed at Devall's Bluff, Arkansas, devoted part of their earnings to establishing schools not only for themselves, but also for freed children in the town.
Affidavit of a Georgia Freedwoman, March 14, 1866
A freedwoman recounted a May 1865 confrontation in which a former slave named Epson Phillips asserted to his former owner's face that he was as free as he was and would defend himself against attack – a declaration the former owner could not abide.
- Proceedings in a Case between an Alabama Freedwoman and Her Employer's Son, March 24, 1866
A freedwoman who was whipped by her employer's son complained to the local Freedmen's Bureau agent, who tried him for assault and battery.
Florida Black Grocers to the Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, April 5, 1866
Seven black grocers in Tallahassee, Florida, protested the burdensome taxes levied on them by the civil authorities and urged the need for black-owned businesses in order to protect freedpeople from being exploited by white merchants.
Alabama Freedman to the Headquarters of the Alabama Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, April 5, 1866
Philip Smith, a freedman who was attempting to farm independently, could not obtain credit that would enable him to feed his family and livestock until the harvest. He asked the federal government to advance supplies that he would repay from his crop.
- Freedmen's Bureau Officer in Mississippi to the Headquarters of the Mississippi Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, April 9, 1866
Reporting on an inspection of several plantations along the Mississippi River, Lieutenant George W. Corliss described wide-ranging conflict between ex-slave laborers and their employers and overseers. Violence was commonplace and occasionally fatal, as evidenced by a deadly altercation on the plantation of Nathan B. Forrest, a former Confederate general.
- Georgia Planter to the Freedmen's Bureau Acting Assistant Commissioner for Georgia, April 17, 1866
When the circumstances of their households allowed, many freedwomen declined to labor for white employers, preferring to care for their children and engage in productive activities in their own households, gardens, and poultry yards. A planter in Georgia denounced the resulting reduction in the plantation labor force as detrimental to the entire Southern social order.
Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent for Princess Anne County, Virginia, to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the 1st District of Virginia, April 19, 1866
In the Norfolk area, many freedpeople could support themselves by short-term work or by cultivating “wild” land that owners offered rent-free in exchange for the labor of clearing it. The availability of such options made them indisposed to enter into yearlong contracts for farm labor.
- South Carolina Freedmen to the Freedmen's Bureau Acting Assistant Commissioner for the Western District of South Carolina, April 23, 1866; and Freedmen's Bureau Surgeon at Orangeburg and Columbia, South Carolina, to the South Carolina Freedmen's Bureau Surgeon-in-Chief, May 6, 1866
A committee of freedmen in Columbia, South Carolina, protested local authorities' “Shameful treatment” of black residents who had contracted smallpox, prompting an investigation by a Freedmen's Bureau medical officer.
- North Carolina Free Black Man to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Southern District of North Carolina, April 26, 1866
For impoverished black Southerners struggling to attain economic independence, their primary resource was the labor of their families. Joe Bright rented a forty-acre farm, expecting his six working-aged children to help him cultivate it, but his expectations were dashed when their former owner had the children bound to him as apprentices.
First page of manuscript (Image, 529K)
- Statement of a Tennessee Freedman, April 30, 1866; and Proceedings in a Case against the Freedman's Employer, May 2, 1866
When Andrew Cleveland threatened to have Allen Payne's wife whipped, Payne declared that he would not allow it, whereupon Cleveland threatened to kill him. Payne reported the confrontation to the local Freedmen's Bureau agent, who put Cleveland on trial.
Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner for Madison, Taylor, and Lafayette Counties, Florida, to the Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, May 1, 1866
A Freedmen's Bureau agent offered a pessimistic view of the freedpeople's prospects in his district. White residents were implacably hostile to the former slaves and defiant of federal authority, employers exploited their ex-slave workers, state laws advantaged white employers over black laborers, and the civil authorities declined to act when freedpeople were wronged or abused.
- Kentucky Freedwoman to a Daughter in Tennessee, May 13, 1866; and the Freedwoman to Another Daughter in Tennessee, May 13, 1866
In letters to her adult daughters, Aima Ship touched on family connections, her health, her work, her faith, and her aspirations in freedom. She also shared the distressing news that a granddaughter had been involuntarily apprenticed to a white master.
- Kentucky Freedman to the Secretary of War, May 14, 1866
Henry Mars, who had served as sergeant major of a black regiment during the Civil War, protested the exclusion of black people from white-owned taverns and public houses, as well as prohibitions against black people operating such businesses themselves.
- Testimony by a South Carolina Freedwoman and Her Employer, May 16, 1866
Chastised by her employer for talking loudly with visiting relatives, a domestic servant named Betty Carrion indignantly refused to be silenced – an act of defiance for which she was beaten and then discharged. In a hearing before a Freedmen's Bureau agent, Carrion and her employer each recounted the episode.
- Virginia Black Hucksters to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, May 21, 1866, Enclosing a Receipt for Rental of a Huckster Stall
Breaching conventional notions that restricted the participation of women in public life, black women working as hucksters in Portsmouth, Virginia, gathered to denounce municipal regulations that hampered their own and their husbands' efforts to earn a living.
Proceedings in a Case between a Tennessee Freedwoman and Her Employer, May 24, 1866
In a trial before a Freedmen's Bureau agent, Loucy Jane Boyd, a fifteen-year-old freed girl, testified to being repeatedly raped by her employer, Larkin Willis.
- Adjutant of a Missouri and Arkansas Black Regiment to the Executive Committee of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, June 11, 1866
Stationed in eastern Arkansas, where many of them had been enslaved, soldiers of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry expended both their money and their labor to construct an orphanage for black children.
- Affidavit of an Alabama Black Teacher and Clergyman, June 16, 1866
Robert Alexander, a black minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and teacher of a freedmen's school at Auburn, Alabama, was abducted by four white men, savagely beaten, and threatened with death unless he left the area. A justice of the peace who also served as a Freedmen's Bureau agent turned a deaf ear to the black women who reported the attack, but the Reverend Henry M. Turner, a presiding elder in the church, insisted that higher officials in the bureau act to protect Alexander.
Kentucky Black Soldiers to the President, July 3, 1866
More than a year after the war ended, soldiers serving along the Mexican border compared their service to the Union with the shoddy treatment they and their families had endured and challenged their commander-in-chief to make good the nation's promises to them.
- Affidavit of a Tennessee Freedman, July 18, 1866
In successive workplace disputes with his employer, Archy Paine of Tennessee was beaten, subjected to malicious prosecution, and warned to leave the state.
Tennessee Freedman to the Commander of the Military Division of the Tennessee, July 18, 1866
During the war, several hundred freedpeople had established a community just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, on land abandoned by disloyal owners. Now they faced dispossession at the hands of returning ex-Confederates who were especially aggrieved because many of the community's residents had been Union soldiers.
Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent at Liberty, Virginia, to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the 7th District of Virginia, July 19, 1866, Enclosing a Letter from a Virginia Former Slaveholder to the Assistant Superintendent, July 18, 1866
No longer willing to support three elderly, infirm freedmen he had previously owned, a former slaveholder renounced further responsibility and abandoned them alongside a public road, expecting the local Freedmen's Bureau agent to provide for them.
- Certificate of Deposit by a Kentucky Freedman in the Freedman's Bank, July 29, 1866
A black soldier from Kentucky who was serving in Texas deposited $10 into his account with the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, a private corporation chartered by Congress that was popularly known as the Freedman's Bank.
- Affidavit of an Arkansas Freedman, July 30, 1866
After journeying from Virginia to work on a plantation in Arkansas, Edward Smith became dissatisfied with the conditions he and his co-workers endured. When he and another freedman set out on a sixty-mile trek to the nearest Freedmen's Bureau office to enter a complaint, they were captured by armed white men with tracking dogs but later liberated by a black hunting party.
Texas Planter to the Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner at Richmond, Texas, July 30, 1866
Exasperated by ex-slave laborers who would neither comply with his orders nor display the deference he expected, a Texas planter sought the intervention of a Freedmen's Bureau agent.
- Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Selma, Alabama, to an Alabama Justice of the Peace, July 30, 1866
Ex-slave Charles Hardy suffered a severe blow from his employer when he objected to the employer's whipping his son.
Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent for Cumberland County, North Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Southern District of North Carolina, July 31, 1866
A Freedmen's Bureau agent protested that state and county capitation (“poll”) taxes imposed heavy burdens on impoverished former slaves.
Statement of a Louisiana Freedman, August 18, 1866
When Green Jones attained a modicum of economic independence by renting land on his own account and hiring other ex-slaves to help him cultivate it, he and his employees were subjected to a brutal attack by white nightriders.
South Carolina Employer to the Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner at Aiken, South Carolina, September 5, 1866
When Harriet Benson, a freedwoman employed as a cook, was reprimanded by her employer, her husband forbade her to return to work because “he wasn't going to have his wife jawed at like a dog.” His refusal to relent led to the couple's dismissal without pay.
- ‣ Georgia Freedman to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, September 22, 1866
‣ Georgia Freedman to the Georgia Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, September 24, 1866
Disheartened by their prospects in Georgia and determined to move where they could acquire land of their own, a group of freedmen representing 150 families looked to Arkansas, where public land was available for settlement under the recently enacted Southern Homestead Act.
Complaint of Two Alabama Freedpeople, September 24, 1866
A freedman and his wife had agreed to work for wages plus the right to tend any land they cleared in their own time, but in mid-August their employer reneged on the arrangement and forbade them to harvest the independent crop they had made.
- Affidavit of the Wife of a Discharged Georgia Black Soldier, September 25, 1866
The wife of a discharged soldier paid a high price for his association with the Union army.
Mississippi Freedman to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, October 6, 1866
On behalf of 300 black families, the chairman of a mass meeting of freedpeople in Vicksburg, Mississippi, called upon the Freedmen's Bureau and the General Land Office to remove bureaucratic obstacles to taking up land under the Southern Homestead Act.
- Alabama Planter to the Alabama Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, October 28, 1866
A crop failure left black laborers on the plantations of John Strain, who were working for one-fourth of the crop, in his debt for advances made over the course of the year. They were therefore unable to pay the bill of a physician they had engaged, who went after Strain for payment.
District of Columbia Freedwoman to the Headquarters of the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia, November 17, 1866; and Affidavit of Her Husband in Virginia, November 28, 1866
James Lacey and his wife, Mary, had left rural Virginia for Washington, D.C., during or just after the war, but in 1866 shortage of work in the city prompted James to return to Virginia. When Mary refused to join him there, the couple fell into dispute over the custody of their young daughter.
- South Carolina Freedwoman to an Unidentified Military Officer, November 18, 1866
Lavinah Malby and her co-workers had been promised a share of the crop as compensation for their labor in 1865. Having received nothing by late 1866, she appealed to the Freedmen's Bureau.
- South Carolina Freedman to the South Carolina Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, November 21, 1866
Rather than work another year for white employers for one-third of the crop, many freedpeople in Sumter District, South Carolina, wanted to settle on public land in Florida. Few, however, possessed resources with which to support themselves while clearing the land for cultivation. Kelly Mosses, a preacher and leader of the Sumter freedpeople, proposed that the federal government supply rations that the homesteaders would repay from their future crops.
Texas Freedmen's Bureau Inspector to the Headquarters of the Texas Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, November 30, 1866
A Freedmen's Bureau official itemized the issues that had caused conflict between laborers and employers in 1866 and advised greater specificity in contracts for the coming year.
- Alabama Freedman to the Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner at Huntsville, Alabama, December 6, 1866
Richmond Body and his twenty-eight-person family had agreed to work for a white farmer for half of the crops they produced and to furnish nearly all of their own food and livestock feed. At year's end, their employer had their share of the crop seized to satisfy a debt he claimed they owed him, leaving them with nothing.
Two Letters from the Freedmen's Bureau Acting Subassistant Commissioner at Griffin, Georgia, to the Headquarters of the Georgia Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, December 17, 1866, and January 4, 1867
A Freedmen's Bureau agent described the bleak conditions confronting former slaves in a drought-ravaged section of Georgia. Driven away without pay or informed that their debts to their employers exceeded what they had earned, they wanted to move elsewhere but lacked the means to do so.
Freedmen's Bureau Agent at Walthourville, Georgia, to the Georgia Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, December 20, 1866; and Reply from the Assistant Commissioner's Headquarters, December 21, 1866
Struggling to support not only his disabled wife and three small children, but also a hundred-year-old brother, seventy-six-year-old Stephen Baker sought assistance from the Freedmen's Bureau.
- Report of a Speech by a Virginia Freedman, late December, 1866
Hundreds of former slaves in tidewater Virginia resided on land that had come under federal control during the Civil War but was being reclaimed by ex-Confederate owners. After Freedmen's Bureau officials announced that the freedpeople must relinquish the plots they regarded as rightfully theirs, Bayley Wyat delivered an impassioned speech decrying their impending dispossession.
- Alabama Freedwoman to Her Father in Virginia, January 18, 1867; and Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent for Alexandria and Fairfax Counties, Virginia, to the Headquarters of the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia, March 12, 1867
Struggling to support herself and two children after being abandoned by her husband, Elizabeth Weden of Alabama hoped to rejoin her father and brother in Virginia, from whom she had been sold away more than twenty years earlier. Unable to afford the passage, she sought help first from members of her church and then from her father, who applied to the Freedmen's Bureau for assistance.
- Army Officer at Gallatin, Tennessee, to the Headquarters of the Department of the Tennessee, January 29, 1867, Enclosing an Anonymous Broadside
A notice distributed by white regulators in middle Tennessee set forth rules for black laborers and threatened violators with whipping or death.
Alabama Black Teacher to the Alabama Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of Education, February 5, 1867; and Headquarters of the Alabama Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner to the Government Relief Agent at Wetumpka, Alabama, February 7, 1867
Writing from a region threatened by widespread famine, a black teacher protested that rations furnished by the federal government were being distributed to white widows of Confederate soldiers but denied to black people who had been the Union's staunch supporters.
- North Carolina Freedman to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, February 9, 1867
Facing eviction when the land they had occupied was restored to its prewar owners, freedpeople in the Trent River settlement near New Bern protested to the head of the Freedmen's Bureau.
Freedmen's Bureau Agent for Taylor County, Georgia, to the Georgia Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, February 12, 1867
A Freedmen's Bureau agent decided that the yearlong contract a freedwoman had signed before her marriage took precedence over her new husband's claim on her and her labor.
- Freedmen's Bureau Special Agent for Jackson County, Florida, to the Headquarters of the Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, February 28, 1867
A Freedmen's Bureau agent surveyed labor relations after a contracting season in which many freedpeople had negotiated more favorable terms of employment and some had engaged to rent land. Other former slaves, however, had not been paid for their previous year's work, while credit arrangements with employers and merchants threatened to ensnare laborers in debt.
Anonymous Warning to Two Kentucky Freedmen, [late February, 1867]
When two freedmen undertook to farm on their own rather than work for their former owners, vigilantes threatened personal violence and arson unless they left the state.
- Maryland Black Apprentice to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Washington, D.C., April 22, 1867
Apprenticed during the war to a white Marylander who mistreated him, twelve-year-old Carter Holmes fled to Washington, D.C., in hopes of reuniting with his parents.
Affidavits of Three Texas Freedmen, May 13, 14, and 16, 1867
During an investigation into the murder of a freedman by a plantation overseer, three freedmen recounted the brutal treatment they and their co-workers had endured at the overseer's hands.
North Carolina Freedman to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent of the Subdistrict of Weldon, North Carolina, May 16, 1867
Nearly twenty months after his wife and teenaged sons had been evicted without pay from the farm on which they had worked in 1865, Wilson Maggett sought assistance from the Freedmen's Bureau in recovering the compensation they were due.
- Testimony by an Alabama Freedman before the Southern Claims
Commission, July 31, 1872
With slavery in northern Alabama unravelling during 1862, Alfred Scruggs became free in fact if not at law. In postwar testimony, Scruggs described how he and his wife had worked to acquire livestock of their own, only to lose it to federal impressment parties in 1864.
- Testimony by a South Carolina Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, March 17, 1873
Alonzo Jackson, during the war a slave in Georgetown, on the South Carolina coast, described to a postwar federal commission the assistance he had rendered Northern escapees from the prisoner-of-war stockade at Florence, in the interior of the state.
- Testimony by a Georgia Freedwoman before the Southern Claims Commission, March 22, 1873
The Union troops who in late 1864 liberated Nancy Johnson and her husband from slavery also stripped them of property they had painstakingly accumulated while in bondage. Years later, she recounted to a federal commission the rigors of life in the Confederacy and the tribulations of an impoverished freedom.
- Testimony of an Arkansas Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, June 6, 1873
Robert Houston of Arkansas recounted his wartime experiences as a slave on a plantation, a fugitive from
Confederate labor impressment, a laborer on a federal gunboat, an independent woodcutter, and a Union soldier.
Testimony by a Georgia Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, July 17, 1873
Slaves who accompanied their owners into the Confederate army as personal servants often learned of federal emancipation policies before their families and friends. When they returned home, their knowledge spread quickly. Samuel Elliott, a former slave from Georgia who had been taken to the frontlines in Virginia, told a postwar federal commission of the result on his plantation.