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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Soldiers and Slaves

As a boy, Peter Custis of Sturgeon Bay was a slave herding livestock on a plantation in Virginia. If he tried to learn to read or write, he was whipped. On every New Years Day, he and his family risked being split up and sold separately to new owners.

The Civil War broke out when Custis was a teenager, and he was sent to Richmond to work as a hospital orderly. In June of 1864 he was captured by the 36th Wisconsin Infantry. Eight weeks later one of its officers, Col. Clement Warner of Madison, lost an arm and Custis was assigned to him as a valet. The pair stayed together until the unit was mustered out in Madison at the end of July, 1865.

After the war Custis spent a year in Sun Prairie, where he finally got to attend school. He spent the subsequent decades working in Green Bay and aboard ships before settling down and marrying in Door County. He had eight children, and lived to be more than 85 years old.

To learn more about his life as a Virginia slave and as a free black man in Wisconsin, see this 1928 article in the Green Bay Press Gazette.

For more on Wisconsin soldiers' encounters with slavery, visit our new digital collection, Wisconsin in the Civil War. It features several stories excerpted from soldiers' letters, diaries, and memoirs, and contains nearly 100 pages of eyewitness accounts related to slaves and slavery.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on April 14, 2011

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