From time to time, we like to inform the readers of this blog about some of the research we are conducting and the new and interesting things that we are discovering. Over the December holidays, I seized the opportunity of a lengthy vacation to reacquaint myself with the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I spent two days there digging into the pension files of members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who hailed from the Fredericksburg region.
As we continue to expand our research and interpretation beyond the traditional subjects, one area continues to prove a mystery and conundrum – the slave experience in the Fredericksburg region. We have accounts from those that came into contact with slaves, but with the exception of a precious few, we lack almost any narratives from the slaves themselves. Estimates on the number of slaves that escaped northward through the Fredericksburg area in the summer of 1862 have ranged as high as 10,000. Passage into the Union lines meant a new life, but we know little to nothing about who they were, what they experienced or what became of them. That’s where these Civil War pension files prove exciting.
The 23rd USCT, about which Noel Harrison previously wrote about on this blog, was recruited primarily in Washington, D.C. and organized over a period of seven months from November 1863 to June 1864. Recruiting from African-Americans in the District meant that the regiment could draw from the large number of former slaves who had escaped from Virginia and were then seeking refuge within the capital. So, it is reasonable to assume that some of those that had escaped from the Fredericksburg region might have enlisted in the 23rd USCT.
In the mid-1990s, two FRSP staff members took a close look at the records of the 23rd USCT. Liesbeth Neisingh and Jim Bryant searched for information concerning members of the 23rd USCT that might have been killed or reported missing in May 1864. While neither Liesbeth nor Jim found potential candidates for casualties during the May 15, 1864 engagement on the Alrich Farm, or the events leading up to it, they did take note of the places of birth provided by members of the regiment . Between them they found thirty-one soldiers who enlisted in the 23rd and claimed to have been born in the Fredericksburg region – eighteen from Fredericksburg, four each from Orange and Spotsylvania Counties, three from Caroline County and two from Stafford County. With the exception of a couple freemen, these soldiers had escaped from bondage, reached relative safety within Union lines and chose to return to Virginia and fight to maintain their freedom and secure freedom for others.
The compiled service records provide information on a soldier’s time within in the army, but give very little in the way of personal information. Pension files, on the other hand, can be a gold mine. The pensions were designed to provide a soldier or a dependent with some monetary assistance for injuries or disabilities incurred during military service. Of course, in order to receive a pension the soldier or dependent had to apply and these applications were heavily scrutinized. Pension files can sometimes be hefty, containing the applications, proofs of identify, investigations into the claims, depositions of support, marriage certificates, and other useful documents. All of this can provide tremendous insight into a soldier’s personal life and that of his family. Of particular significance are the applications and depositions. These are almost always narratives, dictated to a lawyer of some government official. While not in the applicant’s (veteran or dependent) hand, they are certainly his or her own words.
By using the list created by Liesbeth and Jim, consultation with the pension index revealed that eleven of the thirty-one local men who served in the 23rd USCT, or their dependents, applied for pensions. Some of the documents and statements found in these files are fascinating and provide us with a tremendous amount of personal information on some of the Fredericksburg region’s slaves. The pension applications from the veterans are most illuminating and useful. In their own words, some of the men, or their dependents, provide the location of where they resided as slaves, describe their path to freedom and what became of them after the war. In the absence of slave narratives, these pension files can be a boon to helping us better understand the plight and flight of Fredericksburg area slaves.
Eric J. Mink