The Discover Freedmen Project: Digitizing Freedmen’s Bureau Records for Genealogy and Other Research

Video for The Freedmen’s Bureau Project:

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is an effort to digitize records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which can be used for genealogical and other research. The Project’s website, http://www.discoverfreedmen.org, provides this background:

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is helping African Americans reconnect with their Civil War­-era ancestors. Join us in restoring thousands of records, and begin building your own family tree.

LEAD US INTO THE LIGHT

To help bring thousands of records to light, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was created as a set of partnerships between FamilySearch International and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro­-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum.

Tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.

For those who are interested in the project, please go to the website to get more details.

Hat tip to Yulanda Burgess for this information. FYI, Angela Y. Walton-Raji of the USCT Chronicle blog appears in the above video.

Going beyond the Confederate Flag Controversy: Missing Monuments – The Unfinished Work of Commemorating the African American Experience in the Civil War

Battle_flag_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America.svg
Many people are concerned about the presence of this…
Image: Confederate Battle Flag
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

African-American_Civil_War_Memorial
…but many more should be concerned about the relative absence of this.
Image: African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial–the multi-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War–is just about over. There are already discussions about commemorating the Reconstruction Era, which followed the war. For example, the National Park Service is considering the development of sites that will memorialize Reconstruction Era events.

But recent controversies over the Confederate Battle Flag (see here and here and here, for example) suggest that the job of properly commemorating the war in our public and private spaces is not yet done.

I understand how and why the Confederate Battle Flag (CBF) is such a lightening rod for debate and dispute. But my own concern is not with the presence of the CBF on public or other spaces. I am concerned about the relative absence of memorials, monuments and other objects that reflect the roles and experiences of African Americans during the American Civil War. This is something that we Americans need to talk about, and hopefully, address with collective action.

There are easily hundreds of, if not over a thousand, statues, monuments and other objects that commemorate the Civil War. Overwhelmingly, these objects feature white soldiers, sailors, and civilians. The Civil War era presence of African Americans on the “commemorative landscape,” as many call it, is inadequate, if not woefully so.

This situation is a result of our history. Nine out of ten Civil War era African Americans lived in the Union and Confederate slave states, which were considered “the South.” After the Reconstruction Era, which saw many advances toward racial equality, the South devolved into a state of racial supremacy for whites, and racial subjugation for African Americans. Political, financial, and social conditions inhibited or even prevented African Americans from creating memorials that fairly depicted their wartime experience. The result was a commemorative landscape in which Civil War era black folks were out of sight and out of mind. Someone raised in the South prior to this century could look at the commemorative landscape of the era and easily (and wrongly) conclude that black people were a negligible and inconsequential part of the war.

Things have gotten better. For example, since the 1989 movie Glory, over a dozen or more monuments to black Civil War soldiers have been installed. (A review of monuments to African American Civil War soldiers is here.) But much more needs to be done. In way too many places, children of all backgrounds are growing up in a commemorative environment where the back presence in the Civil War in under-represented, or even unrepresented. We have the power to fix that.

The following are just are a few suggestions for new memorials that depict various aspects of the Civil War history of African Americans. The list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start. If anyone has their own suggestions to offer, feel free to note them in the comments section below. I hope this becomes part of a conversation about creating a commemorative landscape that fully and truly reflects the richness and diversity of the Civil War experience.

So, here we go:

1) No state is more significant in the history of African American soldiery during Civil War than Louisiana. Louisiana provided more African American soldiers to the Union than any other state. Three of the first five black Union regiments were formed in the state. And finally, Louisiana probably produced the most black army officers of any state. A portion of these soldiers were free black Creoles, while others were former slaves. Many enlisted in the Louisiana Native Guards regiments that were organized in New Orleans.


Officers of Company C of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard at Fort Macomb, Louisiana, per Wikipedia
Image Source: Harpers Weekly, February 28, 1863, via Wikipedia

Yet, there is no monument or memorial to black soldiers in the city of New Orleans. Per my research, there is only one monument to black soldiers in the entire state — at Donaldsonville, Louisiana (which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge).

This is an oversight that borders on being shameful. I hate to use such strong language. But it is past due that New Orleans and other places in the state recognize the pivotal role these soldiers played during the Civil War.

2) When the Civil War began, president Abraham Lincoln and the US Congress made it clear: the Union had no intent of disturbing the institution of slavery where it stood. Why? At the least, they hoped to maintain the loyalty of the slave states that had not seceded and joined the Confederacy. At best, they hoped that the Confederate states, secure in the promise that slavery was safe, would return to the Union, thereby avoiding a war. (Note that, Lincoln was adamant that slavery would not spread to the western territories – a policy stance that the secessionists found unacceptable.)

But the slaves had their own agenda. They saw the war as an opportunity for freedom. On May 23, 1861 – just weeks after the war began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe.

The fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, had no duty to return the slaves; in fact, by Union policy, he should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property being used by Confederate insurrectionists, it was within his rights to confiscate that property and use it for the Union’s purposes. This was the beginning of the Union’s contraband policy.


Union General Benjamin Butler receives runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861
Image Source: From The Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia

The contraband policy, which gave bondsmen asylum from slavery in return for their providing labor to the Union, eventually morphed into the Emancipation Proclamation. But the Proclamation might never have happened if not for the three brave men who took the risk of liberating themselves and seeking aid and comfort with their master’s enemy. We need a monument outside of Fort Monroe, which still stands, to commemorate their actions and those of Gen. Benjamin Butler. Continue reading

Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp

Dick in Camp in Virginia
This is a portrait of a young man in a Union Army camp during the Civil War, circa May 1863, in Virginia. He is probably a former slave who found work with the army. A high-resolution version of the image is here. The caption at the bottom of the picture reads “Dick Sketched on the 6th of May, the afternoon of Gen. Hookers retreat across the Rappahannock.” This was after the Battle of Chancellorsville, where forces led by Union General Joseph Hooker were beaten by Confederate forces led by Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

This picture is from the Prints and Photographs collection of the Library of Congress (LOC), and is titled “Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp / E.F.” The drawing, of an African American man holding a mule by a rope, is by artist Edwin Forbes (1839-1895), and was done in May, 1863. The LOC Reproduction Numbers for the image are: LC-DIG-ppmsca-20539 (digital file from original item), LC-USZC4-4219 (color film copy transparency), LC-USZ62-21374 (b&w film copy neg.). The LOC Call Number is DRWG/US – Forbes, no. 64 (A size).

Why did South Carolina Secede from the Union? In Their Own Words: to Protect Their States Rights to Maintain Slavery.

One of the more controversial issues concerning the Civil War is, what was the “cause” of Confederate secession? Why did the slaveholding states feel the need to reject the election of president Abraham Lincoln, and form a separate Confederate nation?

Many say that the central issue of secession was slavery. Others say the central issue was the desire to protect their states rights.

Myself, I don’t think those are mutually exclusive statements. I believe that Confederate secession was about states rights – that is, the states’ rights to maintain slavery.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s let the Southerners tell their own tale.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. On December 24, 1860, the state issued its Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. This document is South Carolina’s declaration of independence from the Union.

The following text is an excerpt from the document, and a very large excerpt at that. For emphasis, I have bolded the word slave, or other references to slavery, such as labor, which refers to slave labor; and persons. In some cases, I’ve added a parenthetical note, with the abbreviation Ed. (for Editor), to explain a comment which might not be immediately understood by the reader. I make some comments on the text further below.

I think it’s quite clear when you read this: South Carolina politicians believed that the institution of slavery was in peril, and they seceded as a way to protect that institution. Here, in their own words, is South Carolina’s reason for leaving the Union:
Continue reading

Black Soldier to his enslaved children: “be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life”


African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454

In February of 1864, Spottswood (AKA Spotswood or Spottwood) Rice, a slave in Missouri, made a momentous decision: he fled bondage and enlisted in the Union army. Rice’s story is discussed in the previous blog post. Army enlistment gave Rice his freedom, but it did not free his children. But he was determined that he would have them.

One of Rice’s children, whose adult/married name was Mary A. Bell, was “owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.” Back then, members of slave families might have different owners, and that could complicate the process of reuniting them.

By September 1864, Spottswood Rice had apparently made attempts to get his children, but was frustrated by his lack of success. He wrote two letters, one to his daughter Mary, the other to owner Katty (Kitty) Diggs, to let them know his plans. The letters, dated September 3, 1864, were written from Benton Barracks Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri, where Rice was recovering from chronic rheumatism.

Three things are striking in these letters. The first is Rice’s contempt for, and indignation at, the idea that he could “steal” his own children from their slaveowners. He tells Kitty Diggs “you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them.” Anyone who tries to prevent him from getting his children, he tells Diggs, is his “enemy.”

The second things that is striking is the sense of power and empowerment Rice has gotten from being a soldier. When Rice comes to get his daughter – and he says forcefully that he is coming – he warns that he “will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child… this whole Government gives chear to me.”

And finally, one cannot help but be struck by the religious language employed by Rice. He tells Diggs that his daughter Mary “is a God given rite of my own” and that “the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell.” He tells his daughter that Diggs “is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage.” Although in fact the idea that slaveholder property rights trumped the slaves’ family rights was a common belief of most white southern Christians at the time. Unsurprisingly, Rice became a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopalian (A. M. E.) Church after the war.

Rice speaks with a righteous voice that proclaims, with God and government behind me, I shall prevail. His daughter would fondly recall many years later that she loved army men, and any man who would “fight for his rights.” And, she might have added, she loved men who fought for their children, just as her father fought for her.

This is Rice’s letter to his childrendated 9/3/1864:

My Children I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever now my Dear Children I want you to be contented with whatever may be your lots be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life on the 28th of the mounth. 8 hundred White and 8 hundred blacke solders expects to start up the rivore to Glasgow and above there thats to be jeneraled by a jeneral that will give me both of you when they Come I expect to be with, them and expect to get you both in return. Dont be uneasy my children I expect to have you. If Diggs dont give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you

Your Miss Kaitty said that I tried to steal you But I’ll let her know that god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood. If I had no cofidence in God I could have confidence in her But as it is If I ever had any Confidence in her I have none now and never expect to have And I want her to remember if she meets me with ten thousand soldiers she [will?] meet her enemy I once [thought] that I had some respect for them but now my respects is worn out and have no sympathy for Slaveholders. And as for her cristianantty I expect the Devil has Such in hell You tell her from me that She is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage

You can tell her that She can hold to you as long as she can I never would expect to ask her again to let you come to me because I know that the devil has got her hot set againsts that that is write now my Dear children I am a going to close my letter to you Give my love to all enquiring friends tell them all that we are well and want to see them very much and Corra and Mary receive the greater part of it you sefves and dont think hard of us not sending you any thing I you father have a plenty for you when I see you Spott & Noah sends their love to both of you Oh! My Dear children how I do want to see you

[Spotswood Rice]

This is Rice’s letter to Katty Diggs, also dated 9/3/1864:

I received a leteter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own and you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root neor branch but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your [vertues?] the day that we enter Glasgow

I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you you never in you life befor I came down hear did you give Children any thing not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs

now you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child you will then know how to talke to me I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self

Spotswood Rice

Notes:

[1] Slavery was abolished in Missouri in February, 1865. The13th Amendment, which abolished slavery nationwide, was ratified in December 1865.

[2] The two letters from Rice were forwarded to Union General William Rosecrans, Commander of the US Army’s Department of the Missouri, by F. W. Diggs. Diggs was the brother of Kitty Diggs, and owned one of Spottswood Rice’s children. Diggs wrote to the general, “I write this to ask the favour of you to send the scoundrel that wrote (the letters) down to the army  I do not think that he should be allowed to remain in the state… to be thus insulted by such a black scoundrel is more than I can stand.” All of the correspondence is in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867; Series 2, The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland; pages 689-691.

Enlistment Emancipation in Missouri: “I love a man who will fight for his rights and any person that wants to be something.”

Spotswood Rice Enlistment form
Enlistment papers for Spotswood Rice, AKA Spottswood Rice. Spottswood Rice escaped from bondage during the American Civil War and joined the Union army. Rice lived in Missouri, which was a Union slave state. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Abraham Lincoln at the start of 1863, did not apply to Missouri and the other Union slave states. But by February 1864, when Rice enlisted, the Union was accepting enslaved men from its slave states into the army, sometimes without the explicit permission of the owner. Once enlisted, the slaves were legally free; hence the term, “enlistment emancipation.” For the 39 year old Rice, military enlistment was an act of liberation.

(NOTE: More about Spottswood Rice is here.)

For Spottswood Rice, life as a slave in Missouri was hell. And the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t helping.

Issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, in the midst of a bloody Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within rebelling states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” But that only applied to states that had seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Missouri and several other slave states (often called the Border States, because they bordered the North and South) that remained in the Union were unaffected by the Proclamation. There was a logic to this policy: the Union did not want to lose the loyalty of its slave states, lest they join forces with Confederates. And after all, those states were not in rebellion against the United States. But it must have been bewildering and frustrating to Border state slaves like Rice.

But the “military necessity” mentioned in the Proclamation would yet serve to free tens of thousands of black men in the Border States. As the war wore on, the overriding need for soldiers led the Union to enlist Border state slaves. In October 1863, the War Department ordered the recruitment of black soldiers in Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee (none of which were covered by the Emancipation Proclamation), with compensation to loyal owners for their lost property. Enlistment had a unique benefit for enslaved males: it gave them the status of free men. I have dubbed this “enlistment emancipation.” Enslaved men throughout the border states fled their masters and enlisted, gaining their freedom in the process. [1] Spottswood Rice was one of those men.

The freedom stories (individual accounts of how people moved from slavery to freedom) of men like Spottswood Rice have not always survived, but in this case, we are lucky. One of his children, Mary A. Bell, was interviewed about her life as a slave for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era’s Works Progress Administration. Born in 1852, she was 85 at the time of her interview. But she had a keen memory of the “hard times” faced by herself and her parents. She recalled how her father, who was nicknamed “Spot,” led a group of men to escape enslavement and enlist in the Union army. He was, she said proudly, a man who would “fight for his rights.” This is from her narrative of life as a slave:

I was born in Missouri, May 1, 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs. I had two sisters and three brothers. One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War…

I so often think of de hard times my parents had in dere slave days, more than I feel my own hard times, because my father was not allowed to come to see my mother but two nights a week. Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So often he came home all bloody from beatings his old nigger overseer would give him. My mother would take those bloody clothes off of him, bathe de sore places and grease them good and wash and iron his clothes, so he could go back clean.

But once he came home bloody after a beating he did not deserve and he run away. He scared my mother most to death because he had run away, and she done all in her power to persuade him to go back. He said he would die first, so he hid three days and three nights, under houses and in the woods, looking for a chance to cross the line but de patrollers were so hot on his trail he couldn’t make it. He could see de riders hunting him, but dey didn’t see him.

After three days and three nights he was so weak and hungry, he came out and gave himself up to a nigger trader dat he knew, and begged de nigger trader to buy him from his owner, Mr. Lewis, because Marse Lewis was so mean to him, and de nigger trader knew how valuable he was to his owner. De nigger trader promised him he would try to make a deal with his owner for him, because de nigger trader wanted him. So when dey brought father back to his owner and asked to buy him, Mr. Lewis said dere wasn’t a plantation owner with money enough to pay him for Spot. Dat was my father’s name, so of course that put my father back in de hands of Marse Lewis.

Lewis owned a large tobacco plantation and my father was de head man on dat plantation. He cured all de tobacco, as it was brought in from the field, made all the twists and plugs of tobacco. His owner’s son taught him to read, and dat made his owner so mad, because my father read de emancipation for freedom to de other slaves, and it made dem so happy, dey could not work well, and dey got so no one could manage dem, when dey found out dey were to be freed in such a short time.

Father told his owner after he found out he wouldn’t sell him, dat if he whipped him again, he would run away again, and keep on running away until he made de free state land. So de nigger trader begged my father not to run away from Marse Lewis, because if he did Lewis would be a ruined man, because he did not have another man who could manage de workers as father did. So the owner knew freedom was about to be declared and my father would have de privilege of leaving whether his owner liked it or not. So Lewis knew my father knew it as well as he did, so he sat down and talked with my father about the future and promised my father if he would stay with him and ship his tobacco for him and look after all of his business on his plantation after freedom was declared, he would give him a nice house and lot for his family right on his plantation. And he had such influence over de other slaves he wanted him to convince de others dat it would be better to stay with their former owner and work for him for their living dan take a chance on strangers they did not know and who did not know dem. He pleaded so hard with my father, dat father told him all right to get rid of him.

But Lewis had been so mean to father, dat down in father’s heart he felt Lewis did not have a spot of good in him. No place for a black man.

So father stayed just six months after dat promise and taken eleven of de best slaves on de plantation, and went to Kansas City and all of dem joined the U.S. Army. Dey enlisted de very night dey got to Kansas City and de very next morning de Pattie owners were dere on de trail after dem to take dem back home, but de officers said dey were now enlisted U.S. Soldiers and not slaves and could not be touched. Continue reading

The Union Line

Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River Virginia, August 1862
African Americans, fleeing bondage, ford the Rappahannock River and enter Union lines, circa July-August 1862; near Rappahannock, Virginia, close to the site of the Second Battle of Bull Run (AKA Second Manssass).
During the American Civil War, tens of thousands – perhaps a hundred thousand and more – African Americans escaped enslavement and sought refuge in Union occupied territory. Before the war, they might have been captured by slave patrols, groups of men who guarded their neighborhoods against runaway or wayward slaves. The presence of Union troops in the South, and the loss of white southern men to Confederate military service, gave slaves the opportunity to free themselves from captivity. The Union gave refuge to the runaways in return for their labor and other support. Many of the African American men in these groups become Union soldiers or sailors.

Image Source: Library of Congress; see also here.

The Union Line
by Alan Skerrett

Baby girl is crying so loud
Maybe mother’s milk isn’t right
If she’s too loud, a patroller might hear
And if we get taken back to massa
Lord knows what he’ll do to us
But we’ll be free
If we can make it
to the Union line

Young son is shivering
It’s not always this cold in November
Is it bad luck? Or a warning?
But I made up my mind
I heard the Yankees have tents and blankets
We’ll be warm
If we can make it
to the Union line

Where are you mama? Where are you papa?
They sent me down that river so long ago
You told me never to forget you
And to be a good nigger
I guess I can do one
And maybe not the other
Maybe I won’t be a nigger at all
If we can just make it
To the Union line

I’m holding my wife and children’s hands so hard
I’ll never let them go
The road, it whips us
The rain, it whips us
The hunger is whipping us
Well, we’ve been whipped before
But we ain’t whipped yet!
Our hands are strong
Strong enough to push and pull ourselves to freedom
Once we make it
To the Union line