Fighting for Their Freedom


From Mink:

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.

The graves of John Mahoney and John Bell at Arlington National Cemetery. Mahoney, a freeman born in Fredericksburg, rose to the rank of 1st Sergeant in the 23rd USCT. Bell, the former slave of Linia Arrington of Stafford County, served as Principal Musician for the regiment and became a Pullman porter in Philadelphia after the war.

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.

The grave of Henry Coleman at Arlington National Cemetery. Born in Spotsylvania, Coleman enlisted in February 1864 and would have been present for the fight at Alrich Farm. Coleman was detached from his company in the final months of the war to serve as a sharpshooter.

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.

The grave of Peter Churchville at Arlington Cemetery. A former slave from Orange County, Churchville enlisted in the 23rd USCT and served onyl two weeks before being captured at the Battle of the Crater before Petersburg. He was reclaimed by his "owner" and sold back into slavery.

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.

An example of the type of narrative that can be found in a pension file was previously posted here in the case of Andrew Weaver, the former slave of J. Horace Lacy. In the coming weeks, as I work through the files, I’ll post a couple accounts that provide wonderful detail and insight into the lives of these slaves turned soldiers.

Eric J. Mink

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8 thoughts on “Fighting for Their Freedom

  1. I wonder how many other documented cases we can assemble showing freed slaves serving in the Union Army being returned to slavery after capture? It would be good to have some real evidence of how the CSA treated such persons.

    Robert A. Mosher

    • You may want to follow the story of the 111th US Colored Infantry. They were captured at Sulphur Branch Trestle in northern Alabama. Most taken prisoner down to Mobile. However, a few did escape in fact, and then rejoined after capture and escape. I told some of that story on my blog post: http://tinyurl.com/26z7kx4
      I placed some images from his pension file on that post. I also recently heard from a reader whose ancestor was imprisoned in Mobile, who described their treatment–which was extremely harsh. Note also that this capture and being taken prisoner was 6 months after Ft. Pillow massacre, and the capture was by NB Forrest, the same man at. Ft. Pillow. More info on the treatment is found in the pension files of soldiers and the witnesses.

  2. Eric: Great find! I was honored to attend Greene County’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and the Historical Society presentation December 4 at the Green County Courthouse, Stanardsville. Dr. Spencer Crew, Professor of History at George Mason University, past President, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, former director, Smithsonian Museum of American History (whew!) spoke extensively about the Underground Railroad. My wife has been following this for several years. She is a master quilter and there is a controversial theory that quilts hung on porches and clotheslines were part of the communication path to lead slaves to safety. They had SOME SORT of communication to get them to the right houses!

    Greene County pointed out that each year of the five years of the Sesquicentennial Remembrance has a “theme” established by the Virginia Commission. Your research fits right into 2010–African American Experience in the Civil War.

    In any case, Dr. Crew might be a good contact for you to add to your research.

    Bob Johnson

  3. Eric,
    Read you post with interest. If you have not, you should definately visit the Afro-American Museum amd Memorial in the U St. are of DC. The director, Dr. Frank Smith and his assoc. Hari Jones are indeed expert on the topic of USCT. The website also has a link to NPS listings of all USCT. It is: www. afroamcivilwar.org
    Another wonderful source would be the USCT Living History Association, comprised of historians, re-enactors, decendants of both USCT and Contraband…
    Their site is: http://www.usctlha.net
    Thank you for posting on this topic as it is of particular interest to our group of women.

    • Mary – Thanks for the leads and suggestion of contacting Dr. Smith. It’s been a number of years since I’ve visited the Memorial in DC.

      Eric

  4. Hi,

    I have enjoyed reading the wonderful research that was done. I have traced my ancestors to the Mannsfield plantation in Spotsylvania County. I had 3 generations of my family living on the plantation and their names have shown up in the appraisal that was done after the death of Mann Page Jr. (the fourth). I am trying to trace the steps of the slaves who remained after his death. Does anyone have any ideas? Were the slaves sold or emmancipated? Is there a cemetery on the site for the slaves that were working the plantation? Any info you may have will be greatly appreviated.

    Helen

    • Helen: Tracking slaves after freedom is often very difficult, largely because of the absence of surnames prior to freedom. I will have to do some digging on the fate of Mann Page’s slaves. I presume they were treated as part of the estate, for any wide-scale emancipation would have been news, and I’ve not heard of it. But, let me do some work on this next week and get back to you. John Hennessy

    • Helen – Are you referring to the appraisal of Mann Page’s estate compiled in 1803? If so, you might check to see if there is a will for the deceased Mann Page. Such a document would be in the collection of the Fredericksburg Circuit Court House. I suggest you search the “Historic Court Records” website for that collection. The website can be found here:

      http://www.historiccourtrecords.org

      Search for “Mann” and/or “Page” under the categories “Wills” and “Free Negro/Slave Records.” I believe the 1803 Will for Mann Page survives, which might describe the distribution of his estate, including the slaves named in the appraisal.

      If I think of any other suggestion, I’ll poist them here. Good luck!

      – Eric

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