Sgt Harris’ Christmas/New Year’s wish: Please “take away” my family to freedom


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“Fleeing from the Land of Bondage,” illustrated by F.O.C. Darley. From Mary Livermore’s “My Story of the War” (Hartford, Conn., 1896).
During the Civil War, Union soldiers conducted raids or expeditions to gather and remove slaves to federal-controlled areas, sometimes called contraband camps or freedman colonies. Some raids were requested and conducted by African American soldiers.

It was Christmas season, 1864, and black southerner 1st Sgt. Joseph J. Harris was thinking about his family. He was stationed in Florida, but his family was in far away Louisiana. As a Union soldier, he was free; or at least, he was considered so by the United States. His family in Louisiana were considered slaves. He hoped the Union army could do something about that.

So, on December 27, 1864, Harris sent a letter to a General Ullman. This was surely Union Daniel Ullman, about whom Wikipedia writes:

(In 1862 Ullman) approached President Abraham Lincoln about the possibility of enlisting African Americans as soldiers. Though Lincoln was cool to the measure, he did discuss the matter with Ullman again. In January 1863 Ullman was promoted to brigadier general and sent to Louisiana, where he raised five regiments of African Americans as soldiers in a unit that was designated the Corps d’Afrique. Upon the end of the war, Ullman was mustered out and given the rank of major general.​

Some people called the Corps d’Afrique “Ullman’s Brigade.”

For many former slaves who joined the Union army, enlistment and service meant leaving their families behind, in bondage. The uncertainty of their family’s circumstances gnawed at the hearts and minds of the black soldiers. In his letter to the general, Sergeant Harris begged Ullman to send an expedition to free his family from their Louisiana plantation:

Barrancas Fla. Dec 27. 1864

Sir I beg you the granterfurction of a Small favor will you ples to Cross the Mississippia River at Bayou Sar La. with your Command & jest on the hill one mile from the little town you will finde A plantation Called Mrs Marther. H. Turnbuill & take a way my Farther & mother & my brothers wife with all their Childern & U take them up at your Hed Quarters. & write to me Sir the ar ther & I will amejeately Send after them. I wishes the Childern all in School. it is beter for them then to be their Surveing a mistes. Sir it isent mor then three or four Hours trubel I have bain trying evry sence I have bin in the servis it is goin on ner 3. years & Could never get no one to so do for me now I thinks it will be don for you is my Gen. I wishes evry day you would send after us. our Regt. ar doing all the hard fightin her we have disapointe the Rebes & surprizeed theme in all. importan pointes they says they wishes to Captuer the 82nd Regt that they woul murdar them all they Calls our Regt the Bluebellied Eagles Sir my Farthers Name Adam Harris he will Call them all to gether. & tel him to take Cousan Janes Childarn with hime

Joseph. J. Harris

Sir I will remain Ob your Soldiar in the U.S.A.​

I am doing some more research to see what actions, if any, Ullman or the Union military took in response.

Of course, the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery would finally bring freedom to all of the enslaved families of the South. But even if he knew that would be so, it would not bring joy to Sgt Harris in the Christmas of 1864. All he could do is soldier on.

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