Testimony by a Northern Woman

[Washington, D.C.? January? 1864]

Mrs Louisa Jane Barker (wife of Chaplain Barker (1st Mass Heavy Artillery

I know the spot of ground which was assigned by Lieut Shepard to the colord people to build their cottages upon.  A little village had collected there.  I made frequent visits among them to ascertain their wants, plans occupations &c   Their freedom had been taken mostly under the Presidents [Emancipation] proclamation of January 1st 1863   Since that time they had not only supported themselves, and their families, but saved money enough to build the little shanties they then occupied   They expressed great reluctance to enter the contraband camp, because they felt more independent in supporting themselves, and families, after the manner of white laborers.

I think they were proud of their past success–  The first help they required was education–  Every head of a family eagerly entered into my proposition to start a school for their children   They gave their names to be responsible for tuition at any rate I might decide upon to be paid monthly–  A well educated mulatto woman engaged to take the school as soon as a building could be procured   I interested some gentlemen of Boston in my plan, and had obtained the promise of a contribution of a part, if not the whole of a school house, when the whole project was thwarted by a sudden order for a second removal of this village outside of the Rifle pits or into the Contraband Camp.  This order created great unhappiness amongst them–

I enquired of the most intelligent negro whether any complaint had been made to him as to the new settlement–  He had not heard of any just ground of complaint from any one–  several groundless complaints had been mad: there was no truth in them.

About ten days after this conversation a body of soldiers entered the village claiming to have been sent by Genl Augur with peremptory orders “to clear out this village.”   This order was executed so literally that even a dying child was ordered out of the house–  The grandmother who had taken care of it since its mothers death begged leave to stay until the child died, but she was refused

The men who were absent at work, came home at night to find empty houses, and their families gone, they knew not whither!–  Some of them came to Lieut Shepard to enquire for their lost wives and children–

In tears and indignation they protested against a tyranny worse than their past experiences of slavery–  One man said “I am going back to my old master–  I never saw hard times till since I called myself a freeman–

I have never seen any of the sixteen families composing this settlement since the conversation above alluded to; and I regret to find that I have lost the list of their names–

Testimony of Mrs. Louisa Jane Barker, [Jan.? 1864], Miscellaneous Records, series 5412, Department of Washington, U.S. Army Continental Commands, Record Group 393 Pt. 1, National Archives. Filed with testimony by Lieutenant Charles H. Shepard, an officer in the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, and by Danforth B. Nichols, superintendent of contrabands at Freedman's Village, all undated and collectively labeled “Destruction of a Contraband Village settled near the Colord Camp at Arlington.” The officer who ordered that the independent “village” of ex-slaves be “clear[ed] out” was General Christopher C. Augur, who had assumed command of the Department of Washington in October 1863. A copy of the eviction order was incorporated into Nichols's testimony, where it is dated November 31, 1863, a nonexistent date; the correct date is not known. In his testimony, Lieutenant Shepard explained that the uprooted freedpeople had originally built cabins “in the front of the Arlington House,” but one of his superior officers had complained “that they injured the look of the Estate which the government intended to sell at the best advantage.” Shepard had therefore relocated them to the back of the contraband camp at Freedman's Village, near Fort Albany. At the time they numbered between 60 and 100. Nichols testified that he had sanctioned the new settlement and offered its residents advice about constructing their houses “with regard to uniformity of size, shape, and location.” “They were useing commendable efforts to support themselves,” he recalled, “& while there successfully did so.” According to both Shepard and Nichols, the commander of Fort Albany had repeatedly complained about the proximity of the settlement and charged that its residents were “stealing from fort to fort,” but it was not until Augur assumed command that the complaints bore fruit. Augur had ordered “that the Contraband who have located themselves near Fort Albany, be removed at once.” He instructed Nichols to receive into the contraband camp such of the evicted families “as are worthy & fit to be received . . . & the rest will be sent under guard to [Washington].” At sundown, as Nichols recalled the scene, soldiers surrounded the settlement, and “every human being, except the sick and those unable to move, were brought away,” including 150 to 200 women and children. “[A] goodly number” chose to enter Freedman's Village; the rest, as Shepard described it, “were marched over to Washington that night, and were obliged to stay out in the cold.” At least one of the evicted freedpeople died “in consequence of that removal.” At the time of the eviction, Nichols noted, the men of the settlement were away at work, many of them at the government corral, some in the engineer corps at Balls River. “[O]ne man,” Shepard reported, “said he thought it was mighty hard that, after they had laid out every dollar they had, they should be treated so; & some said they rather go back into slavery than to receive such treatment: they seemed to think they were imposed upon, & said they were as much slaves now & they ever had been:  they said they would rather be independent; did not want to be of any expense to the government but desired to live on the produce of their own labor & did not want any superintendent or overseer.”

Published in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, pp. 311–13, and in Free at Last, pp. 212–14.