Wisconsin Union Soldiers and Runaway Freedwoman


Wisconsin-Union-Men-and-Freedwoman
Cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862.
This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 22 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

This Civil War era image depicts a self-liberated teenaged woman (AKA runaway slave) from Kentucky who was eventually escorted to freedom with the aid of Union soldiers from Wisconsin. Recollect that Kentucky, while loyal to the Union, was a slave state throughout the course of the Civil War. (Maryland and Missouri, which were also Union slave states, abolished the institution before the war ended.)

The story behind the picture is provided at the Oxford African American Studies Center website. The two men in the photograph were part of Wisconsin’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, which was “composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause.” They escorted the young woman in the picture from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of Levi Coffin, an Underground Railroad operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, disguising her as a “mulatto soldier boy.” The picture was taken in Cincinnati. The young woman, whose name is not identified, was eventually sent to Racine, Wisconsin. An expanded version of the story is below the fold.

I want to offer a hat tip to Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthhamer for highlighting this interesting image in their book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.

More of the story behind this photo is contained in the book Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the underground railroad: being a brief history of the labors of a lifetime in behalf of the slave, with the stories of numerous fugitives, who gained their freedom through his instrumentality, and many other incidents. The book is available on Google Books.

This excerpt relates the details:

Among the regiments that collected at Cincinnati, during the time of Kirby Smith’s threatened raid into Ohio, was one from Racine, Wisconsin, which, from the well-known anti-slavery sentiments of the commander, Colonel Utley, and the men composing it, had received the name of the Abolition regiment. While they were in camp near Nicholasville, Kentucky, a young mulatto slave girl, about eighteen years old, of fine personal appearance, was sold by her master, for the sum of seventeen hundred dollars, to a man who designed placing her in a house of ill-fame at Lexington, Kentucky. As soon as the poor girl learned of the fate in store for her, she fled from her master, and making her way to the camp of the Twenty-Second Wisconsin volunteers— the regiment referred to—told her story, and asked protection. The true-hearted men, to whom she applied for help, resolved to aid her, though the law did not then allow Northern troops to protect fugitive slaves who came within their lines.

Her master soon came to the camp in pursuit of her, but the men secreted her, and he did not find her. The colonel now wished to send her to a place of safety, and two soldiers volunteered to conduct her to Cincinnati. One of their officers told them that he knew me personally, and recommended them to bring the fugitive to my house. She was dressed in soldier’s clothes and hidden in a sutler’s wagon, under some hay. The two men dressed themselves in citizen’s clothing, and having learned the password that would open a way for them through the picket lines, took their seats in the wagon, and drove out of camp about one o’clock at night. They traveled almost without stopping until the distance—more than a hundred miles—was traversed, and they reached Cincinnati in safety.

They came immediately to my [Levi Coffin’s] house, and were ushered into the sitting-room, accompanied by their charge, who presented the appearance of a mulatto soldier boy. As there was other company present, they called me to one side and related their story. The “soldier boy” was given into my wife’s care, and was conducted up-stairs to her room. Next morning he came down transformed into a young lady of modest manners and pleasing appearance, who won the interest of all by her intelligence and amiable character.

The party remained a day or two, to recover from the fatigue of their journey, and during the interval visited a daguerrean gallery, where they had their pictures taken, the lady sitting, the soldiers standing, one on either side, with their revolvers drawn, showing their readiness thus to protect her, even at the cost of their own lives. Not content with escorting her to a free State, these brave young men telegraphed to Racine, Wisconsin, and made arrangements for their friends there to receive her, and I took her one evening in my carriage to the depot, accompanied by her protectors, and put her on board the train with a through ticket for Racine, via Chicago. She was nicely dressed, and wore a vail, presenting the appearance of a white lady. I conducted her to a seat in a first-class car, her soldier friends having previously taken leave of her in the carriage. As the train moved off they lifted their hats to her, aud she waved her handkerchief in good-by. They afterward remarked to me, that it seemed one of the happiest moments of their lives when they saw her safely on her way to a place beyond the reach of pursuers. They had done a noble unselfish deed, and were rewarded by that approval of conscience which contains the most unalloyed joy of life.

After their return to camp, I received the following letter from one of them:

“In Camp, Near Nicholasvii.le, Kentucky, 1
“November 17, 1862.
“FRIEND L. Coffin: As the Lord prospered us on our mission to the land of freedom, so has He prospered us in our return to our regiment. At five o’clock on Friday evening, after a ride of three days, we arrived at our camp near Nicholasville; and you would have rejoiced to hear the loud cheering and hearty welcome that greeted us on our arrival. Our long delay had occasioned many fears as to our welfare; but when they saw us approach, the burden of their anxiety was gone, and they welcomed us by one hearty outburst of cheers. The colonel was full of delight, and when he heard of the Friend L. Coffin, who had so warmly welcomed us to the land of freedom, he showered a thousand blessings on your head. The way was opened, and we were directed to you by an unseen but ever-present Hand. The Lord was truly with us upon that journey.
“Your humble friend,
“Jesse L. Berch.”

The name of the other soldier was Frank M. Rockwell. Both were young men of true principles and high character, and, as representatives of the solid worth of Wisconsin’s noble sons, were men that their State could regard with pride.

I received a letter from Jesse L. Berch, a few months ago, making inquiries in regard to a book which he had heard I had published. When I replied, stating that my book was not yet published, I asked for news of the slave girl whom he had aided to rescue. He responded, giving information of her safe arrival in Racine, and of her residence there for a few months, concluding by saying, “Afterward she married a young barber and moved into Illinois, and I have never been able to ascertain her whereabouts since I came from the army, though Mr. Rockwell and myself have tried repeatedly.

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