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Eyewitness Accounts of Civil War Slavery

Officers of Company I, 7th Wisconsin Infantry, with their black servant, Alonzo Gambel, standing in the shadow of the tent, 1862
WHI 25588

"Wisconsin in the Civil War" is a digital collection currently under development by the Society. It will provide easy access to thousands of letters, diaries, memoirs and images that tell of the war though Wisconsin soldiers' eyes. It will launch online in April to coincide with the beginning of the four-year-long sesquicentennial commeoration of the American Civil War. The development process has uncovered more than 200 items about African Americans — slaves, ex-slaves and free citizens. This rarely seen material gives powerful insight into the attitudes of both Southern and Northern whites about race. Some also describe African Americans' transition from slavery to emancipation.

Soldiers Relay Conversations with Ex-Slaves

Soldiers often wrote home. As Wisconsin regiments moved through the South, they were joined by thousands of displaced ex-slaves who were were often hired to do chores in camp. The following excerpts provide a glimpse into conversations with the "contrabands" (as they were called) that soldiers wrote about.

Excerpt: Escaping slavery in Missouri

"There was a bright looking little negro boy who used to bring wood into my room," reported a soldier serving in Kansas, "and once or twice for amusement I engaged him in conversation. He told me that he was ten years old, and related how he came to be in Leavenworth."

Excerpt: Virginia slaves decide whether to stay or go

"As I rode by a row of negro quarters," wrote Captain Rufus R. Dawes of the 6th Infantry, "an old negro slave with his hat under his arm, his voice tremulous with fear and excitement, said: 'Massa, is you the big ossifer?' I asked him what he wanted. He said: 'We heard you'uns would make us colored people free. The people want to go with you. Some says we can go and some says we can't go.'" Later the old man and all his fellow slaves appeared at Dawes' camp. He records how, when their master tried to claim them, they debated whether to go back to the plantation or take their chances with Wisconsin troops.

Other Accounts of African Americans

Some ex-slaves take up arms

Peter Thomas was a 14-year-old slave in western Tennessee when Wisconsin troops came through. After working for them as a servant, he joined the 18th U.S. Colored Infantry as soon as possible and fought until the war ended in 1865.

Ex-slaves follow employers to Wisconsin at war's end

When the war ended in 1865, many African American refugees accompanied their Wisconsin patrons. For example, 18-year-old Peter Custis came to Madison with Colonel Clement Warner after he worked as the Colonel's valet during the war. He later went to school in Sun Prairie, worked in Green Bay and on Great Lakes steamers, and ultimately settled in Door County.

Benjamin Butts was only 11 when he was adopted by Wisconsin's 5th Light Artillery outside Petersburg, Virginia. He returned to Richland Center with a soldier, opened a barber shop, and later moved to Madison where he worked as a messenger in the state Capitol.

The new online collection draws from several sources. More than 10,000 letters sent to local newspapers by Wisconsin soldiers were collected during the Civil War by E, B. Quiner, personal secretary to the governor. In addition to the Quiner correspondence, the online collection will include newspaper articles, handwritten diaries, memoirs, regimental histories, maps, and photographs and other images.

:: Posted February 7, 2011

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