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Wisconsin Soldiers Encounter Slavery

A group of escaped slaves seeking refuge behind Union lines

February is Black History Month, and recently digitized documents in Wisconsin in the Civil War open a window onto one aspect of African-American history largely hidden until now — how were slaves and black refugees viewed by Wisconsin troops? Our state sent more than 90,000 soldiers to the war. Most of them were farm boys or recent European immigrants who had probably never met a black person. They recorded their impressions in letters sent home, in diaries they penned in the field and in memoirs they wrote afterward. Their eyewitness accounts not only document the conditions of Southern slaves but also reveal how white Northerners reacted when confronted by slavery.

A Change of Heart

Most new Wisconsin recruits probably didn't care much about slavery. Their initial letters show that they mainly enlisted to defend the Union — to protect their country and its experiment in democracy. For example, James Norris of Waterown wrote home in the fall of 1861, "I go not fearing death, but welcoming it, if it is for the good of my country that I should die." Patriotism and comradeship were their main motives for fighting.

But as they went deeper into the South, Wisconsin soldiers saw slavery close-up and many were appalled. Capt. William Moore of Black River Falls wrote the following journal entry after witnessing enslaved fieldhands working on a plantation near Clarksville, Tennessee:

"Oh! Hardened depraved man, to think of owning property in men, women and children. Man, the last and noblest work of God, possessed of body, mind and soul, or passions, love and hate — all bought and sold by man for a consideration and computed in dollars and cents. Is there a just God, and will he always see his creatures thus oppressed, and not send retributive justice with a sword of vengeance to teach traitors their duty, and punish them for passed offences?"

Moore added moral outrage to love of country as one of his motives. When his superiors ordered officers to return escaped slaves who had taken refuge with his regiment to their owners, Moore resolved to disobey the order.

Refugees Become Friends

Thousands of African Americans came into Union camps seeking refuge. In September 1863, when Wisconsin's 2nd Cavalry was camped on a plantation outside Helena, Arkansas, a captain from Eau Claire kept a slave family from being tricked back into bondage. Army orders prohibited troops from liberating slaves but required them to protect any who found their way behind Union lines. "Mandy, a house servant," recalled Capt. A.M. Sherman, "...with two daughters nine and ten years old" escaped from their plantation and were assigned work in the regiment's kitchen.

One night as Capt. Sherman returned to camp he "found Mandy and children with bandanas on and bundles of clothes in their arms, accompanied by a man in a lieutenant's uniform" outside the lines. When he accosted them, Mandy explained that the lieutenant was leading them to a steamboat that would take them upriver to freedom. The officer took Sherman aside and discreetly showed him a purse full of gold coins. He explained that Gen. Frederick Steel had accepted it as a bribe from the mistress of the plantation: Mandy's family was being taken not to freedom but straight back into slavery.

When the lieutenant offered him a share of the bribe, Sherman recognized the man as a private from his own regiment impersonating an officer. "I instantly fell to kicking his posterior," Sherman recalled, "but he ran too fast for me to give him all the kicks I intended." Then he escorted the family back into camp and hid them when the general sent troops to arrest them.

Many ex-slaves who had worked as cooks, valets or servants in camp came North with Wisconsin officers at the end of the war. For example, Peter Custis went to school in Sun Prairie before settling in Door County, raising a large family, and living to the ripe old age of 85. Peter Thomas came to Beloit, attended school there and was eventually elected a county official. And Benjamin Butts worked for state government after the war and became a well-known figure in Madison.

See for Yourself

The online Civil War Collection contains many more stories about Southern slaves and Wisconsin soldiers. Follow the links below to view original letters, diaries and recollections.

:: Posted February 13, 2012

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