Friday, March 2, 2012

A Letter from a Union Soldier Describing Contrabands

 A Letter from a Union Soldier Describing Contrabands Published in a Northern Paper

On the 2st inst., one of our sentinels thought he heard a cry for help floating down from far up the river: 'come and get us!" was the rude, faint voice that came from more than two miles across the water from an island of mud and rank grass. From the ramparts of the fort we discovered an object which proved to be a pole holding up a towel raised by the suffering wanderers. A boat was dispatched which brought in three besmeared starving colored men. These reported more men and three women in a similar situation further up the river. A second boat was sent out, which after hours of search, venturing close to the enemy's lines, rescued the periled and destitute company. These refugees were a spectacle--almost naked, the women having only little miserable skirts that reached to their knees, besmeared with mud, as one said,, "boggy as de bog eself,' famished and almost entirely exhausted.

For nine weary days and fearful nights they had been feeling their perilous way from the slave pens, twelve miles beyond Savannah, through the rebel bivouacs and lines, wading through swamps, skulking through forests, and swimming three rivers, the women clinging to the necks of the men, floundering across the mud islands, as they said, "like de alligators," till they discovered the dear tars and stripes floating over fort Pulaski.

The original party consisted of twelve; four gave out on the way. The famished but persevering eight were consuming their last morsel of food when they descried our garrison flag. One of them said," when I seed that flag, it fill me right up." What a compliment from the human soul to our standard! How unspeakably sweet is the thought of liberty! Tell us not that the slave is indifferent to freedom.

But miles of distance and the swift flowing Savannah still divided them from help and safety. The wind baffled their uplifted voices. Another night of hunger, nakedness, and peril, was before them on their island of mud, where they mired to their waists. Before the sun went down they saw a steamer visit the fort, and hoping they had been heard, looked longingly for her to come up the river after them, but when they saw her leave the fort and disappear from view on her way towards Port Royal, their hearts egan to fail them: one remarked, "when I seed de steamboat go way, my heart go down to de bottom of my foot." But the calm of the following morning allowed their cry of freedom to reach our ears and their rude stick an little towel attracted our eyes.

A group of photographs show slave children who were released by Union troops. Two of these show a brother and sister who were freed from their owner, Thomas White of Mathews County, Virginia, by Captain Riley of the 6th U. S. 0.1. on February 20, 1864, and taken to the Society of Friends in Philadelphia to be educated at the Orphan’s Shelter. The cartes-de-visite were sold to raise funds to educate the children. The captions on the photographs explain that the children’s mother had been “beaten, branded and sold at auction because she was kind to Union Soldiers.” She had been taken away to be sold in Richmond only seven days before the children were freed. Their story, when placed next to the Pywell photograph, puts the pain of the slave market into chilling perspective.

Pitiable yet unutterably happy creatures they were when they reached our garrison. One moment's view of them and interview with them would have melted the most obdurate of "copperheads." They had been working for the confederate government and a little corn bread daily was their whole compensation. As we handed to one of them a loaf of bread, he ejaculated, "Gorry, Massa, dat be work two or free dollar in Sawannna." In almost every sentence they would exclaim, "Tank the Lord, we get away."--Letter from Fort Pulaski (source:

--"Touching Story of Contrabands," The Worcester Daily Spy, April 8, 1864

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