From Eric Mink:
The summer 1862 occupation of Fredericksburg and Stafford County is a period in the region’s history that receives little attention when compared to the battles and events that followed a few months later. For many of the Union soldiers stationed along the Rappahannock River, the summer occupation proved to be their first real exposure to the South and the institution of slavery. It has been estimated that perhaps as many as 10,000 slaves passed through the military frontier around Fredericksburg to take refuge within Union lines. Termed “contraband,” most of the escaped slaves continued their journey to the District of Columbia and perhaps even points farther north. Others chose to stay with the Union army and secured work and employment in support of the thousands of soldiers that made up the Union’s Department of the Rappahannock. This interaction developed into a working relationship that most certainly left impressions upon the soldiers.
Union authorities set to work using the refugees in a variety of roles. Many found work at Stafford County’s Aquia Landing on the Potomac River, loading and unloading the supply ships that docked there. Still others received employment as drivers for artillery forges and transportation wagons. Compensation for this work varied and as one Union officer stated “the lowest price was one ration and 25 cents per day, and the highest one ration and 40 cents.” Perhaps the largest source of employment found within the army was that of a servant to the army’s officers and men.
One soldier in the 7th Wisconsin Infantry informed his readers at home that the contrabands:
“come in every day and in squads as large as twenty. We give them something to eat and some of the boys get them at very cheap rates to cook and do other things for them. We have 12 or 15 in our company.” Letter of “Wills”, dated May 19, 1862, Copy in files of FRSP.
No standard pay existed for the services of the camp servant. In what was surely one of the first acts of self-determination for the contrabands after gaining freedom, the cost of their services resulted from an agreement that could be negotiated between the servant and soldier.
Plenty of anecdotal accounts of camp servants around Fredericksburg exist and we know the names of a few former slaves who first found employment by hiring themselves out to officers. Andrew Weaver, a slave of James Horace Lacy was the subject of a previous blog post. He worked for Lieutenant Jacob Sackett of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry. George H. Washington, a Spotsylvania County slave, served an officer with the 8th Connecticut Infantry, while John T. Bell of Stafford County claimed to have worked for a New York officer. While photographic evidence of the summer 1862 occupation is limited to a mere handful of images, a single photograph does exist to illustrate the officer-servant relationship.
An unidentified photographer visited the Union encampments around Fredericksburg and produced a series of images that focused on regiments from Wisconsin. Three of those have as their subject Company I, of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry. The first shows the company assembled on what is likely the parade field along the north bank of the Rappahannock River. The skyline of Fredericksburg is visible in the background and helps to establish the photo’s location as being on the plantation of James Horace Lacy. Today, the location is likely part of the John Lee Pratt Memorial Park, a recreational park adjacent to the Chatham Manor unit of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.
The second photograph depicts the company street of Company I. An orderly encampment, cedar trees line the clean street and at the far end, at the head of the street, is the tent of the company’s commanding officer Captain George Walther.
The third image is a close-up of Captain Walther’s tent. The captain is seated to the right. Standing against the upright pole of the tent fly is 2nd Lieutenant Christian Lefler. To his right, seated with an open newspaper, is 1st Lieutenant Joseph N.P. Bird. Behind Lieutenant Lefler, and barely visible in the shadow of the tent fly, is Walther’s camp servant. The servant appears to be without a jacket and holding something in his gloved hands. This photo is remarkable because not only does it graphically represent the relationships that developed between soldiers and contrabands that summer, but we can actually put a name to each person shown in this image, including the camp servant.
Like all Compiled Service Records (CSR), that of Captain George Walther’s is kept at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Walther’s CSR for his service with the 7th Wisconsin Infantry is rather brief. Walther received gunshot wounds to the right shoulder and face on August 28, 1862 at the Battle of Brawner’s Farm. He never returned to the regiment, although he did go on to command the 35th Wisconsin Infantry.
Of particular interest in Walther’s CSR is information contained upon the card abstracts that show Captain Walther employed servants for much of his time with the 7th Wisconsin Infantry. Even more interesting is that the servants are named. This information was copied to the cards from company muster rolls and shows that for the period August through September 1861 Walther hired a servant named “Lucas Martin.” The muster roll that covered the subsequent two months reveals a man named “John Herman” in the captain’s service. Finally, for the period of March through August 1862, which includes the entire time Walther and his company were in Fredericksburg and Stafford County, we find a “colored man,” who was specifically identified as a servant and not a soldier, named “Alonzo Gambel.” It is certainly reasonable to assume that the servant seen inside Captain Walther’s tent in the photo taken in July 1862 is Alonzo Gambel, the man named on Walther’s CSR cards.
A name does not, however, necessarily provide an identity. Who was Alonzo Gambel? Was he from the Fredericksburg area or the larger central Virginia region? Had he been a slave or a freeman?
Tracking the name Alonzo Gambel proves difficult. He first appears on the company roster for March and April 1862. Since the 7th Wisconsin did not arrive opposite Fredericksburg until April 23, 1862, it is quite possible that Gambel traveled south with Walther. Later in 1863, twice a black man named Alonzo Gambol (also spelled Gambel) received a military pass in Washington. The pass issued in the fall of 1863 gives the man’s reason or business for a pass as “Officers Servant.” These pieces raise plenty of questions. Did Gambel enter Walther’s employment in Stafford County, or did he arrive with Walther and the regiment in late April? Was Gambel with Walther through the time of the latter’s wounding at Brawner’s Farm? What happened to Gambel after Walther’s wounding? Was it Gambel who received the passes in 1863 and was then working for another officer?
Various documents, including the US census, offer a tease, but nothing concrete. The closest possibility is a black man named “Alonzo Gamble” who appears in the 1870 Census for the District of Columbia. He is listed as the head of the household at the age of 29 and his place of birth is given as Maryland. He lived with three women and one boy aged 28 to 5 years in age. Their relationship was not provided. If this is the same man, he would have been 20 or 21-years old in 1862. The 1868 city directory for the District of Columbia shows an “Alonzo Gambol” working as a barber on D Street. This man continues to appear in the city directories through 1877, at which point he is listed as “Alonzo Gambrill.” By the 1880 Census, he disappears.
Alonzo Gambel remains a mystery, but the photo of him along with Captain Walther and the other company officers is an important photo for what it represents. The interaction between the contrabands and soldiers around Fredericksburg must have left impressions upon both. We don’t have much in the way of observations from the refugees, but the impressions of soldiers are numerous and varied. Many understood the plight of the escaped slaves and when confronted with it face to face many of the soldiers saw more clearly their purpose. As one officer in the 80th New York wrote home from Fredericksburg in late April 1862:
“One finds the question rising involuntarily, Is not the negro a man? Warmed with the same sun, hurt with the same weapons, having the same feelings, affections, aspirations that the white man has? Why then should he be a slave to his fellow man?
Your correspondent, in common with many others in the regiment and surrounding ones has secured the services of a man Friday, who was coachman and man of all work, to a prominent secessionist farmer down the Rappahannock. I find him a capital ‘help’ – skilled and prepared to render almost any service required…I shall have no compunctions whatever in using the services of the ‘contraband’ in promoting the interest of the Union cause, by promoting for the present those of one its humblest supporters – and of giving him besides such ‘aid and comfort’ in the matter of reaching the freedom that he craves…” – C. letter of April 29, 1862 published in The Kingston Argus, May 7, 1862
What about Captain Walther, his fellow officers and the men he commanded? What impression did the contrabands and servants make upon them? In 1860, Wisconsin had a population of 775,881, of which only 1,171 were African American – a mere 0.0015% of the state’s population. It’s not hard to speculate that some of the Wisconsin soldiers may never have seen a slave or person of African descent before arriving in Virginia. What effect did the servant-soldier relationship have? Did these interactions influence their views on the war or on slavery? Change opinions, or perhaps solidify them? For Alonzo Gambel, how did employment with Captain Walther affect his life? How did he view his role in with army and the events he witnessed?
This post is adapted from “Molding a Legend: Images of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry Opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia, July 1862,”an article I authored that appeared in Volume XX, Number 3 (November-December 1998) of Military Images.
Eric J. Mink