Would You Choose Freedom or Your Wife?

John Boston Letter to enslaved wife
Letter from runaway slave/freedman John Boston to his wife Elizabeth. John tells his wife he has escaped to freedom with the Union army — and might never see her again.
Image Source: National Archives

Would you leave your wife and family to gain freedom for yourself?

That dilemma was faced by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of slaves during the Civil War. Many enslaved Southerners fled their masters and sought freedom behind Union lines. But the chance for escape did not always afford the opportunity to take all the family along. [1]

This was apparently the case for John Boston, who escaped enslavement in Owensville, MD, by taking refuge with a New York regiment that was heading south. Boston wrote a letter to his wife, transcribed below, where he exclaims his joy at being free, and expresses his regret that he has left his wife (and perhaps a child named Daniel) behind. It is not clear if Boston wrote the letter himself, or if one of the regiment’s soldiers wrote it.

John Boston says in the letter “i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes.” He has no certainty about what the future holds; for now, he has cast his lot with the Union army, and all he can do is hope that God will take care of the rest. It is worth noting that the letter was written in January 1862. The legislation authorizing the Emancipation Proclamation was not passed by the US Congress until July 1862; and Lincoln did not issue the final version of the Proclamation until January 1, 1863. The notion of emancipating the slaves was not yet Union policy.

(In any event, the final version of the Proclamation did not apply to Boston’s home state of Maryland; it was only effective for states that had seceded and joined the Confederacy. Maryland did finally abolish slavery in November 1864 – notably, this was more than a year before the 13th Amendment was ratified.)

Envelope for the letter from runaway slave/freedman John Boston to his wife Elizabeth.
Image Source: National Archives

It does not appear that Elizabeth Boston ever received this letter. It was intercepted and eventually forwarded to US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton by a group of Marylanders who wanted something to be done about runaway slaves who were being harbored in Union army camps. At the time, The War department wrote back that the situation would be handled when “time permitted.”

This is the content of the letter[2]:

Upton Hill [Va.] January the 12 1862

My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take this time to let you know Whare I am i am now in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day i can Adress you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare fredom Will rain in spite Of earth and hell

Dear you must make your Self content i am free from al the Slavers Lash and as you have chose the Wise plan Of Serving the lord i hope you Will pray Much and i Will try by the help of god To Serv him With all my hart I am With a very nice man and have All that hart Can Wish But My Dear I Cant express my grate desire that i Have to See you i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes

Dear Elizabeth tell Mrs Own[ees] That i trust that She Will Continue Her kindness to you and that god Will Bless her on earth and Save her In grate eternity My Acomplements To Mrs Owens and her Children may They Prosper through life I never Shall forgit her kindness to me Dear Wife i must Close rest yourself Contented i am free i Want you to rite To me Soon as you Can Without Delay Direct your letter to the 14th Reigment New york State malitia Uptons Hill Virginea In Care of Mr Cranford Comary Write my Dear Soon As you C Your Affectionate Husban Kiss Daniel For me

John Boston

Give my love to Father and Mother​

[1] During its lifetime, American slavery separated hundreds of thousands of bondsmen and -women from their families. In his book Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South, historian Calvin Schermerhorn says that the “psychic and spiritual costs of separation from spouses and other family members are impossible to calculate.” He posits that “in contests with slaveholders, and when and where they could, most enslaved people chose family over freedom.” (The book quotes are noted in a review of the  book which is here.) The desire to keep their families together explains why some (many?… most?) slaves declined opportunities to escape bondage, or why some declined to engage in resistance against their masters (for fear of being punished by being sold away from home).

Another factor that depressed the number of slave escapes was their high failure rate; most runaways were eventually caught. But the presence of the Union army in the slaveholding states presented slaves with all kinds of opportunities to escape, and many slaves, like John Boston, took advantage.

[2] Regarding the use of letters by runaways to connect with loved ones: while perhaps not common, it was not unusual for escapees to use the mail to contact family that had been left behind. Such communications had some level of risk for the writer and the recipient, but sometimes the danger was secondary to the need to reach out to family and friends. Often, letters were funneled to trusted persons who could then pass the message over the so-called “grapevine telegraph.” In this example, though, the John Boston sent the letter directly to his wife Elizabeth.

In his book Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery, historian R. J. M. Blackett talked (p16-17) about escaped slaves and their communications with loved ones who were still in bondage:

Writing letters (to enslaved friends and family) was a risky and dangerous business; should they fall into the wrong hands, it could lead to the imprisonment of the courier or a contact person and the selling of the runaway’s spouse…

But if writing letters was a risky business, it was a risk many were willing to take. The abolitionist, Laura Haviland, remembered frequent visits from former slaves who asked her to write letters to their family and friends using as conduits “white people who were there friends.” On the coastal arm of the Underground Railroad, black seamen carried letters between slaves and northern friends and family. Slaves still in bondage, David Cecelski has argued, had extensive contact with slaves who fled or freed blacks who migrated to northern cities.


2 thoughts on “Would You Choose Freedom or Your Wife?

  1. I know I cant comprehend what life was like as a slave here in the U.S. but regardless of how horrible it may have been, I just cant imagine abandoning my wife and my child in order to have freedom for myself. I wouldn’t be able to consider the choice between “freedom” or “family”. To leave them behind for any reason is beyond me, unless of course it was for a short period of time and I were somehow able to return and take my family with me to a place where we could all live free together. Risk of course would be a factor.
    For a man to leave his family behind to live in slavery simply because he wanted to live in freedom should simply be shot, or possibly brought back and made a slave to provide for his family but never entering the home. Her new husband could of course. If a man figure’s out how to get his family to a place where they can live and be free first, instead of himself, is just that, ” a man ” , a husband, and a father.

    I have a feeling there was a way that a man could someday come back for his family. If they left simply to be free themselves, then they should be shot like I said.

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