Wednesday, January 2, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Friday, Jan. 3, 1862

“An honest-looking contraband”

“Charles”—his only name, as if to symbolize how slavery diminishes a man—arrived today, with ten others runaway slaves, at Camp Union in Fayetteville, western Virginia. He had walked more than 50 miles to escape his master in Confederate territory. Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio looked Charles over and decided he is “an honest-looking contraband—six feet high, stout-built, thirty-six years old.” (A different group of escaped slaves is shown here.)

An intelligent and observant man, Charles brings a trove of information about the Confederate enemy along with some insights into the plight of slaves. Charles had lost his wife five years ago when their owner, a farmer near the town of Union in western Virginia, ”sold [her] South.” Slaves were property, after all, and owners could treat them like farm livestock, breaking up families with no concern for their feelings.

Slavery’s apologists like to claim how slaves are happy with their lot. Apparently not: Southerners at this time are trying to scare slaves out of escaping by telling them (Hayes recorded) that “Yankees cut off the arms of some negroes to make them worthless and sell the rest in Cuba for twenty-five hundred dollars each to pay [the] cost of the war.”

Charles also tells Hayes how Confederate authorities exploit inequality among the whites. They take the horses of poor people but not the rich, give sons of rich men discharges from military service, and force poor people to mount patrols to keep rich people’s slaves from running away.

When the fleeing Charles and his party were halted by Federal picket guards, they feared they would be mistreated. However, a blue-clad soldier lowered his gun and said to the other soldiers, “Boys, these are some of our colored friends” telling the blacks ‘come on, not to be afraid,’ that they were safe.

Charles exclaimed to Hayes, “Oh, I never felt so in my life, I could cry, I was so full of joy. And…all [the soldiers] I have seen [have been] so friendly—such perfect gentlemen, just as we hoped you were, but not as they told us you were.”

ELSEWHERE: From Camp Chase in Columbus, where the 67th Ohio Volunteer infantry is training, Marcus M. Spiegel, captain of Company C, writes his wife with enthusiasm for his new life. “The new colonel is very favorably disposed to me and I think would do anything to please me,” he tells her with relish, adding, “I drilled the boys all day & am getting to be quite a soldier. My men love me & are willing to swear by me.”

Captain Spiegel is falling in love.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

Your suggestions, comments, and questions about this blog are always welcome. Address the author:

For more information about the author and his newest book, please go to

No comments: