Letters From Civil War Era Tell The Price Of Freedom
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
In February, we celebrate Black History Month and remember people and events that have played an essential role in this country's history. As part of our celebration, editor and writer Kai Wright has been telling us about some exceptional stories.
In the third installment, Kai tells us about the final days of the Civil War as the Union Army moved through the Southern states, changing more than just the military landscape. Two letters give us insight into these tumultuous times. Kai, tell us more about black history.
Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Editor and Writer): Last time I spoke to your audience we heard from some of the free blacks in northern cities in the early 19th century. Today we hop forward to the days towards the end of the Civil War.
As the Union Army is marching through the South, it is tilling up the soil, essentially, kicking up society and turning things upside down. And we get that from a broad societal point of view, but I don't - we don't think enough about what that meant to individuals. Two letters from that time illustrate that.
The first is from a white doctor who went South to help out, sort of like today's disaster relief volunteers, as the Civil War unfolded. Particularly doctors and teachers went to the South to provide services in the camps that were set up in the army's wake of freed slaves. This is Dr. J. Milton Hawks. He's sending a letter back to his wife, who is herself a teacher in the Freemen Association, and he's describing the state of health care of the slaves that he encounters.
Unidentified Man: North Edisto Island, South Carolina, Saturday morning May 17th, 1862. My dear wife, in midwifery here, doctors not are not called. Several births have occurred since I have been here, all attended by one of the Negro women on the place. These midwives are each known as the granny. I keep a record of the births, the same as required in New Hampshire, only not as many particulars about the parents. In this way, the next generation of Negroes will be able to know how old they are.
There is one case I have prescribed ointment and tonic for - the uterus protruding as large, yes, larger than my fist. It has been so 10 years. Her master made her work in the field, sometimes till she would drop down and work, unable to stand. She does not work now.
Another of my patients was whipped so severely by his driver six years ago that he was left senseless of the field, brought into his house by other Negroes and has never been able to stand since. And appears idiotic. He is not content to be in a cabin with a floor. He has sat on the ground so long, so they took off a part of the floor next to the fireplace for him. There he sits in the dirt, covered with an old carpet, with a pile of sweet potatoes in reach. These he pokes into the fire and roasts and eats as he wants. It is a disgusting sight.
Mr. WRIGHT: The second letter comes from a black Union soldier named Private Spotswood Rice. Now, Private Rice had been a slave in Glasgow, Missouri. He had recently achieved freedom, and like many other slaves, he approached the Union Army and volunteered to serve.
There had been a robust debate in the country. Frederick Douglass had been cajoling Abraham Lincoln to make the war a war for emancipation and to arm blacks and to arm slaves. Once he finally agreed, individual blacks made the choice to fight or not to fight based on deeply personal reasons, and Private Rice was one of those sorts of people. He fought because he wanted to march back and free his daughters, who were still slaves in Glasgow. And so, in September of 1864, as his regiment prepares to march on Glasgow, he sends ahead this letter.
Unidentified Man #2: My children, I take my pen in hand to write you a few lines to let you know that I have not forgotten you. Now my dear children, I want you to be content with whatever may be your lots. Be assured that I will have you if it costs me my life.
Mr. WRIGHT: Private Rice tells them, don't worry, I love you, I'm on the way. And tell that Diggs family, who's the owner - who's their former owners - that the wrath of God is coming.
Private RICE: Don't be uneasy, my children. I expect to have you. Your Miss Katie said that I tried to steal you, but I'll let her know that God never intended for a man to steal his own flesh and blood.
Mr. WRIGHT: Private Rice's search was typical of what go on across America for many years. This passage, as well as Dr. Hawks' letter, they show the way individuals dealt with what was a rapid and dramatic change in society that happened in the course of a couple of years.
Whites for the first time saw slavery up close and personal. Blacks found freedom and tried to figure out what do I do with it and were most obsessed with not these grand concepts of freedom, but very real, tangible things, as black families tried to reunite themselves and search for their loved ones that they'd been separated from during slavery.
YDSTIE: Thanks, Kai. Kai Wright is editor of "The African-American Experience," a compilation of black history and culture through speeches, letters, editorials, poems, song, and stories. He joined us from our studios in New York. We'll hear Kai each week this month in our series Tell Me More About Black History.
That's our program for today. I'm John Ydstie, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.