Northern Minister to the Secretary of War

Washington D.C.  July 11th /63

Dear Sir.  In complyance with a suggestion just received at your Office I proceed to make the following statement of facts.

1st I am a missionary among the Contrabands at Fortress Monroe & vicinity.  My present location is at Norfolk, Va.

2d I have no intention of interfering in the least with any military order, but simply to state facts, & make a few requests.

3d On Saturday July 4th an order was received at Norfolk, from the War Department, by way of Fortress Monroe, which was understood by the authorities at the two places to require them to impress all ablebodied colored men in the two places to the Number of 1000 or 1500 & send them to Washington to work in the Quartermaster's Department.  The authorities commenced executing said order at the Fort & Hampton on the 4th, & at Norfolk on Sund. the 5th Inst.  In executing said order the following events transpired.

(a) In the afternoon a large congregation of colored people were assembled at the Colored Methodist Church for divine worship.  As the Minister closed his sermon, the soldiers entered the house, called out a large number of men, & marched them to the Dock & put them under guard.

Others were taken in the streets.  Some of them were allowed to go home during the night & change their clothing; others say they had not such opportunity.  Some were brought away without shoes, & some without coats; many without any change whatever.

(b) There were a large number of contrabands on Craney Island.  Some of them had been at work on Government fortifications in the vicinity of Suffolk & Portsmouth, but had not received their pay.  Soldiers went to the Island & told the men to go up to Norfolk in the Boat & get their pay.  They went without bidding their families good bye, & without any extra clothing, & were not allowed to return.  Their families do not know where they the men are gone

(c) I beg leave to call attention to a few individual cases.  The men brought up are in two divisions called on the List of Trasportation “From Norfolk,’ & “From Hampton.”  Among those from Norfolk, are the following.

John Jordan, has worked on Fortifications & otherwise twelve months & received but 86 cents.  Cannot he, & others in similar circumstances, have assurance from the War Department of pay for past services, as well as for the future.  It will do much to quiet their apprehensions & render them contented.

Nelson Sprewell says he has a rupture & is unfit for Service.

Cornelius Smith says he has free papers, at home place.

Richard Stewart says he was born free & has free papers at some place.

Nelson Wiley is an old man, drove a carriage all his life.

Among the men “From Hampton” I mention the following:  Philip Bright, Edward Bright  Henry Tabb, Emanuel Savage, Miles Hope, Willson Hope, Joseph Hope, Ned Whitehouse, Carl Holloway, Charles Smith, Thomas Needham, Jacob Sanders, Francis Garrar, & Anthony Armsted.  Except the last two names, & these men have rented farms, purchased teams, seed corn & fencing, & have good crops well under way.  They were taken away from their families & farms, & leave no one to care for them.  To appearance they will loose every thing.  Their all is invested in their farms.

Anthony Armstead is a shoemaker & left a sick family with none to care for them.

Wm R Johnson is an old man 62 years of age, conducted Gen Butler to “Big Bethel,” two years ago; Has served in the Hospital much of the time since, but has received no pay.

Henry Minor, is 63 years old, was free born & has free papers which he was obliged to leave in the vicinity of Whitehouse only the day previous to being taken up at Hampton.

George Parker, has a store & goods worth about $100. from which he was taken without notice, & left no one to care for them.

Thomas Risby is a School Teacher, was taken without notice

Lewis Roberson left a team & hogs worth $50. with none to care for them.

Merrit Morris is Ruptured & had been discharged by Lieut Sage as unfit for service.

In view of these facts I would respectfully inquire.

1st Cannot those men who came without proper clothing be supplied?

2d Can the men whom I have specified by name all, or any part of them, be discharged & sent to their homes?

3d Can arrangements be made by which the families of these men can draw a part of their wages, at their request, each month, at Fortress Monroe or Norfolk?

4th Would it be proper for you to give me an official statement for the benefit of their friends, specifying what wages these men will receive per month, about what time they will be allowed to return home, & what they will be required to perform while here?

5th If some of these men think best to send for their families, will they be allowed to come & make this their home?

6th Will you give me permission to visit these men before my return & tell them the results of my interview with you?  I am Very Respectfully Yours,

Asa Prescott.

Asa Prescott to Hon. E. M. Stanton, 11 July 1863, enclosed in Brig. Genl. D. H. Rucker to Brig. Genl. M. C. Meigs, 8 Aug. 1863, “Negroes: Fortress Monroe,” Consolidated Correspondence File, series 225, Central Records, Quartermaster General, Record Group 92, National Archives. According to endorsements, the War Department immediately referred Prescott's letter to the commander of the Department of Virginia, requesting a report with respect to “the allegation that many contrabands have been employed on public works . . . and have not been paid for their services,” but ignoring Prescott's charges of abuse in the impressment of black men. From the headquarters of the Department of Virginia, the letter was referred on July 17 to Captain Charles B. Wilder, superintendent of contrabands at Fortress Monroe, who reported, in a letter prepared the previous day, that incomplete, contradictory, or altogether missing records had made it impossible for him to settle the claims of hundreds of former slaves who were owed wages for military labor. (Capt. C. B. Wilder to Major General John A. Dix, 16 July 1863, in the same file.)

Published in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, pp. 156–59, and in Free at Last, pp. 200–203.