Black History Month and “Civil War Memory”

by Bill Vallante

Join the Union Army and See the World! – err, well, sort of?!


Once again, contemporary historical wisdom has it that all of the slaves ran away to join the union army or to follow it. As one neo-abolitionist historian recently put it, “The Slaves set themselves free!!” Sounds like the kind of pie-in-the-sky melodrama you’d expect from a limosine liberal. In reading the Slave Narratives, I noted that over half of all accounts of union military service suggested ambivalence or involuntary service. It would appear that the popular myth of the USCT being an army of enthusiastic “freedom fighters” is only half-true, if that. Did the slaves overwhelmingly favor one side over the other? That’s hard to say. There were nearly 4 million slaves and no one took a poll. I suppose the safest thing to say is that they did not all behave, nor should they have been expected to behave, in exactly the same way. Let’s look at a few examples:

Henry Henderson, Oklahoma – (Captured Body Servant), (The Slave Narratives)

I use to be a fighting man and a strong Southern soldier, until the Yanks captured me and made me fight with them. I don’t know what the year was, but there was some Southern Indians took in the same battle and they fought with the North too. There was whole regiments deserted from the South, but I was captured; never figured on running away from my own people. Some of the Cherokee Indians who fought with the North were Bob Crittenden, Zeke Proctor and Luke Six Killer. Luke’s father was with the South and got killed; some of the folks said young Luke killed his own father in the war.

William H. Harrison, Arkansas – (Captured Body Servant), (The Slave Narratives)

The son was Gummal L. Harrison. I went with him to war. I was his servant in the battle-field till we fought at Gettysburg and Manassas Gap. Then I was captured at Bulls Gap and brought to Knoxville, Tennessee and made a soldier. I was in the War three and one half years…

…"I was with my young master till my capture. That was my part in freedom. I was forced to fight by the Yankees then in the Union army.

Liney Chambers, Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

What the Yankees didn’t take they wasted and set fire to it. They set fire to the rail fences so the stock would get out all they didn’t kill and take off. Both sides was mean. But it seemed like cause they was fightin’ down here on the South’s ground it was the wurst here. Now that’s just the way I sees it. They done one more thing too. They put any colored man in the front where he would get killed first and they stayed sorter behind in the back lines……

….. When they come along they try to get the colored men to go with them and that’s the way they got treated.

George Greene, Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

My father’s name was Nathan Greene. I reckon he went by that name, I can’t swear to it. I wasn’t with him when he died. I was up in Mississippi on the Mississippi River and didn’t get the news in time to get there till after he was dead. He was an old soldier. When the Yankees got down in Mississippi, they grabbed up every nigger that was able to fight.

Rebecca Brown Hill, Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

I had two brothers sent to Louisiana as refugees. The place they was sent to was taken by the Yankees and they was taken and the Yankees made soldiers out of them.

Elizabeth Hines, Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

My father never told me what his master was to him, whether he was good or mean. He got free early because he was in the army. He didn’t run away. The soldiers came and got him and carried him off and trained him.

Charlie Rigger, Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

"I recollect the soldiers come by in July 1863 or 1864 and back in Decamber. I heard talk so long ‘fore they got there I knowed who they was. They took my oldest brother. He didn’t want to go. We never heard from him. He never come back.

Ous Williams,- Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

"I was born in Chatham County, Georgia–Savannah is de county seat. My marster’s name was Jim Williams. Never seen my daddy cause de Yankees carried him away durin’ de War, took him away to de North. Old marster was good to his slaves, I was told, but don’t ricollect anything about em. Of course I was too young

Soldier Williams, – Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

"I was sway to Louisville to j’ine the Yankees one day. I was seared to death all the time. They put us in front to shield themselves. They said they was fighting for us–for our freedom. Piles of them was killed. I got a flesh wound. I’m scarred up some. We got plenty to eat. I was in two or three hot battles. I wanted to quit but they would catch them and shoot them if they left.

Annie Little, Texas, (The Slave Narratives)

"Dem de good old days, but dey didn’t last, for de war am over to sot de slaves free and old massa ask if we’ll stay or go. My folks jes’ stays till I’s a growed gal and gits married and has a home of my own. Den my old man tell me how de Yankees stoled him from de fields. Dey some cavalry sojers and dey make him take care of de hosses. He’s ’bout twict as old as me, and he say he was in de Bull Bun Battle. He’s capture in one battle and run ‘way and ‘scape by de help of a Southern regiment and fin’ly come back to Mississip’.

Matilda Miller, Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

Mamma said the Yankees told the Negroes when they got em freed they’d give em a mule and a farm or maybe a part of the plantation they’d been working on for their white folks. She thought they just told em that to make them dissatisfied and to get more of them ‘to join up with em’ and they were dressed in pretty blue clothes and had nice horses and that made lots of the Negro men go with them. None of em ever got anything but what their white folks give em, and just lots and lots of em never come back after the war cause the Yankees put them in front where the shooting was and they was killed.

Maggie Snow And Charlie Snow, Arkansas, (The Slave Narratives)

"Papa said the Yankees made all the slaves fight they could run across. Some kept hid in the woods. Seem like from way he told bout it they wanted freedom but they didn’t want to go to war.

William Sherman, Florida, (The Slave Narratives)

Many of the slaves were joining the Union army. Those slaves who joined were trained about two days and then sent to the front; due to lack of training they were soon killed.

Martha Organ, North Carolina, (The Slave Narratives)

"I ‘members ‘specially what mammy said ’bout when de Mankees come. She said dat it was on a Thursday an’ dat de ole master was sick in de bed an’ had sent some slaves ter de mill wid grain. When dese men started back frum de mill de Yankees overtook ’em an’ dey killed de oxes in de harness, cut off de quarters an’ rid ten de house wid dat beef hangin’ all over de horses. Dey throwed what dey ain’t wanted away, but of course dey took de meal an’ de grain.

"De ole master had hyard dat dem Yankees was comin’ an’ he had buried de silverware in a san’ bar, but Lawd dem Yankees foun’ hit jist lak it were on top o’ de groun’. Dey stold eber’ thing dat dey git dere han’s on, ‘specially de meat frum de smoke house. Dey went down inter de cellar an’ dey drunk up master’s brandy an’ dey got so drunk dat dey ain’t got no sense atall. When dey left dey carried my bruther off wid ’em, an’ nobody ever hyard frum him ag’in.