African Americans: Slavery and Freedom

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Jane Giles

Jane Giles was a slave belonging to Margaret Preston of Lexington. While on a trip to New York, Jane ran away. Later she wrote to her former mistress to explain why. Another letter tells us that life as a free African American during these times was not comfortable. These letters were not written during the Civil War, but six years before.

Jane Giles (New York) to Margaret Wickliffe Preston
(Washington D.C.), February 8th 1854
Mrs William Preston

Madam. I take this oppertunity to wright you these few lines to inform you that I am well at this time and I hope you are the same. Dear madam I sopose you wonder why that I left you. Well I will tell you the Reason one Reason was because you Parted me and my housbond as tho we had no feeling and the Next Reason was because you accused me of stealing Money and I was not gilty of it but because I am coulard You sopose that I have not got any feelings I have feelings thank god as well as you and I sopose you feel the Loss of me as much as I do the loss of you. I worked for you when I was with you and dear madam I am working for my Sealf and let me inform you that I Loved my housbond as well as you do yours if I never see him again in this world but I am in hopes to meet him in Haven

I sopose you will call this impedance But I do not I have nothing Against Mr. Preston he treated me well he would not have sent my husbound away had it not been for you and I would have been yet with you. But Never mind Every boddy must have trubble

I Remane Yours

Jane Giles (Box 49)

Susan Preston Christy to Margaret Wickliffe Preston
(Washington DC), January 15, 1855

... I heard yesterday of Jane Elder - Julia Davidson saw Mildred Peay who married a New York merchant, says Jane comes to see her very often, & told her that, she had been overpersuaded by a waiter to leave you - that the hour after she left she escaped (from the house in a back street) and tried to find your hotel & would have gone back, but could not find her way that she got a free man to write to you twice telling you how sorry she was & begging you to forgive her ("tho she says it was most too much to ask") and asking you for Gods sake to let her go back to Carry [M.W. Preston's second child]. Mildred says she speaks of William [M.W.Preston's husband] you & the children, and that when she talked of how Bunny [M.W.Preston's son, then age 5] would miss her, that her tenderness for him & anguish at leaving him was so great that she Mildred cried herself. Mrs Fennell says that since her first interview Poor Jane has lost her health, and is in the bitterest poverty - that she did not complain of you not allowing her to return & said she had been so ungrateful she "was 'at'stonished" I suppose the insolent letter you received was not dictated by her, but probably originated with the writer.... (Box 74)

University of Kentucky Special Collections -- Preston Papers

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John Fee

John Fee was a minister who was sent to tend to the needs of the families of African-American soldiers who enlisted in the Union army at Camp Nelson.

There was another phase of the work at Camp Nelson, then of interest to me, and connected by principle and effect with the work at Berea. The enlistment of colored men at Camp Nelson was soon followed by the coming of their wives and children. These were at first driven out of the camp at the point of the bayonet. Thus sent back, they were exposed to the cruelty of their former masters. I saw indignation rising in the hearts and showing itself in the actions of the colored soldiers. I went to the officials and said to them, "This driving back of wives and children will breed mutiny in your camp unless you desist." The reply was, "What will you do? - will you leave the women and children with the soldiers? That will never do." I said, "No; I would draw a picket line and put the women in the west end of the camp, which is abundantly large and encircled by Kentucky river and cliffs four hundred feet high. Such a natural fortification, high, beautiful, and well-watered, was not anywhere else found in the State." "But," said the Quartermaster, "I can do nothing in the way of shelter without an order from the Secretary of War." I replied, "I know Secretary Chase personally. I will prepare a paper to be sent to his care." "Do so," said the Quartermaster, "and I will sign it." The paper was forwarded. Quickly an order came from Stanton, the Secretary of War, for the construction of buildings; and in a short time the Quartermaster had ninety-two cottages erected as homes for families, two larger buildings as hospitals for sick women and children, and other buildings as school-rooms and offices, boarding hall, and dormitory for teachers, steward and family.

From Autobiography of John Fee

(C) This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use
as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

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Lewis Clarke

Lewis Clarke, the son of a Scottish weaver and a slave mother, was born in Kentucky in 1815. Despite an agreement that she was to be freed upon her husband's death, Clarke's mother and her nine children remained in slavery. After he learned that he was going to be sold in New Orleans, Clarke successfully fled through Ohio across Lake Erie to Canada in 1841. In an account of his life published in 1846, he provided answers to questions he was frequently asked about the impact of slavery upon slave families.

[Question] Are families often separated? How many such cases have you personally known?

[Answer] I never knew a whole family to live together till all were grown up in my life. There is almost always, in every family, some one or more keen and bright, or else sullen and stubborn slave, whose influence they are afraid of on the rest of the family, and such a one must take a walking ticket to the south.
There are other causes of separation. The death of a large owner is the occasion usually of many families being broken up. Bankruptcy is another cause of separation, and the hard-heartedness of a majority of slave-holders another and a more fruitful cause than either or all the rest. Generally there is but little more scruple about separating families than there is with a man who keeps sheep in selling off the lambs in the fall. On one plantation where I lived, there was an old slave named Paris. He was from fifty to sixty years old, and a very honest and apparently pious slave. A slave-trader came along one day, to gather hands for the south. The old master ordered the waiter or coachman to take Paris into the back room pluck out all his gray hairs, rub his face with a greasy towel, and then had him brought forward and sold for a young man. His wife consented to go with him, upon a promise from the trader that they should be sold together, with their youngest child, which she carried in her arms. They left two behind them, who were only from four to six or eight years of age. The speculator collected his drove, started for the market, and, before he left the state, he sold that infant child to pay one of his tavern bills, and took the balance in cash....

[Question] Have you ever known a slave mother to kill her own children?

[Answer] There was a slave mother near where I lived, who took her child into the cellar and killed it. She did it to prevent being separated from her child. Another slave mother took her three children and threw them into a well, and then jumped in with them, and they were all drowned. Other instances I have frequently heard of. At the death of many and many a slave child, I have seen the two feelings struggling in the bosom of a mother -- joy, that it was beyond the reach of the slave monsters, and the natural grief of a mother over her child. In the presence of the master, grief seems to predominate; when away from them, they rejoice that there is one whom the slave-killer will never torment.

Source: Interesting Memoirs and Documents Relating to American Slavery, and the Glorious
Struggle Now Making for Complete Emancipation
(London, 1846)

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Thomas James

Thomas James was an African-American minister sent by the American Missionary Society to care for the families of black Union soldiers in Louisville. He gave this stirring account of the conditions for slaves and freedmen in Louisville during the Civil War.

I returned to Rochester in 1856, and took charge of the colored church in this city. In 1862 I received an appointment from the American Missionary Society to labor among the colored people of Tennessee and Louisiana, but I never reached either of these states. I left Rochester with my daughter, and reported at St. Louis, where I received orders to proceed to Louisville, Kentucky. On the train, between St. Louis and Louisville, a party of forty Missouri ruffians entered the car at an intermediate station, and threatened to throw me and my daughter off the train. They robbed me of my watch. The conductor undertook to protect us, but, finding it out of his power, brought a number of Government officers and passengers from the next car to our assistance. At Louisville the government took me out of the hands of the Missionary Society to take charge of freed and refugee blacks, to visit the prisons of that commonwealth, and to set free all colored persons found confined without charge of crime. I served first under the orders of General Burbage, and then under those of his successor, General Palmer. The homeless colored people, for whom I was to care, were gathered in a camp covering ten acres of ground on the outskirts of the city. They were housed in light buildings, and supplied with rations from the commissary stores. Nearly all the persons in the camp were women and children, for the colored men were sworn into the United States service as soldiers as fast as they came in.

My first duty, after arranging the affairs of the camp, was to visit the slave pens, of which there were five in the city. The largest, known as Garrison's, was located on Market Street, and to that I made my first visit. When I entered it, and was about to make a thorough inspection of it, Garrison stopped me with the insolent remark, "I guess no nigger will go over me in this pen." I showed him my orders, whereupon he asked time to consult the mayor. He started for the entrance, but was stopped by the guard I had stationed there. I told him he would not leave the pen until I had gone through every part of it. "So," said I, "throw open your doors, or I will put you under arrest." I found hidden away in that pen 260 colored persons, part of them in irons. I took them all to my camp, and they were free. I next called at Otterman's pen on Second Street, from which also I took a large number of slaves. A third large pen was named Clark's, and there were two smaller ones besides. I liberated the slaves in all of them. One morning it was reported to me that a slave trader had nine colored men locked in a room in the National hotel. A waiter from the hotel brought the information at daybreak. I took a squad of soldiers with me to the place, and demanded the surrender of the blacks. The clerk said there were none in the house. Their owners had gone off with "the boys" at daybreak. I answered that I could take no man's word in such a case, but must see for myself. When I was about to begin the search, a colored man secretly gave me the number of the room the men were in. The room was locked, and the porter refused to give up the keys. A threat to place him under arrest brought him to reason, and I found the colored men inside, as I had anticipated.

One of them, an old man, who sat with his face between his hands, said as I entered: "So'thin' tole me last night that so'thin' was a goin' to happen to me." That very day I mustered the nine men into the service of the government, and that made them free men.

So much anger was excited by these proceedings, that the mayor and common council of Louisville visited General Burbage at his headquarters, and warned him that if I was not sent away within forty-eight hours my life would pay the forfeit. The General sternly answered them: "If James is killed, I will hold responsible for the act every man who fills an office under your city government. I will hang them all higher than Haman was hung, and I have 15,000 troops behind me to carry out the order. Your only salvation lies in protecting this colored man's life."

During my first year and a half at Louisville, a guard was stationed at the door of my room every night, as a necessary precaution in view of the threats of violence of which I was the object. One night I received a suggestive hint of the treatment the rebel sympathizers had in store for me should I chance to fall into their hands. A party of them approached the house where I was lodged protected by a guard. The soldiers, who were new recruits, ran off in afright. I found escape by the street cut off, and as I ran for the rear alley I discovered that avenue also guarded by a squad of my enemies. As a last resort I jumped a side fence, and stole along until out of sight and hearing of the enemy. Making my way to the house of a colored man named White, I exchanged my uniform for an old suit of his, and then, sallying forth, mingled with the rebel party, to learn, if possible, the nature of their intentions. Not finding me, and not having noticed my escape, they concluded that they must have been misinformed as to my lodging place for that night. Leaving the locality they proceeded to the house of another friend of mine, named Bridle, whose home was on Tenth Street. After vainly searching every room in Bridle's house, they dispersed with the threat that if they got me I should hang to the nearest lamp-post. For a long time after I was placed in charge of the camp, I was forced to forbid the display of lights in any of the buildings at night, for fear of drawing the fire of rebel bushwhackers. All the fugitives in the camp made their beds on the floor, to escape danger from rifle balls fired through the thin siding of the frame structures.

I established a Sunday and a day school in my camp and held religious services twice a week as well as on Sundays. I was ordered by General Palmer to marry every colored woman that came into camp to a soldier unless she objected to such a proceeding. The ceremony was a mere form to secure the freedom of the female colored refugees; for Congress had passed a law giving freedom to the wives and children of all colored soldiers and sailors in the service of the government. The emancipation proclamation, applying as it did only to states in rebellion, failed to meet the case of slaves in Kentucky, and we were obliged to resort to this ruse to escape the necessity of giving up to their masters many of the runaway slave women and children who flocked to our camp.

I had a contest of this kind with a slave trader known as Bill Hurd. He demanded the surrender of a colored woman in my camp who claimed her freedom on the plea that her husband had enlisted in the federal army. She wished to go to Cincinnati, and General Palmer, giving me a railway pass for her, cautioned me to see her on board the cars for the North before I left her. At the levee I saw Hurd and a policeman, and suspecting that they intended a rescue, I left the girl with the guard at the river and returned to the general for a detail of one or more men.

During my absence Hurd claimed the woman from the guard and the latter brought all the parties to the provost marshal's headquarters, although I had directed him to report to General Palmer with the woman in case of trouble; for I feared that the provost marshal's sympathies were on the slave owner's side. I met Hurd, the policeman and the woman at the corner of Sixth and Green streets and halted them. Hurd said the provost marshal had decided that she was his property. I answered -- what I had just learned that the provost marshal was not at his headquarters and that his subordinate had no authority to decide such a case. I said further that I had orders to take the party before General Palmer and proposed to do it. They saw it was not prudent to resist, as I had a guard to enforce the order.

When the parties were heard before the general, Hurd said the girl had obtained her freedom and a pass by false pretenses. She was his property; he had paid $500 for her; she was single when he bought her and she had not married since. Therefore she could claim no rights under the law giving freedom to the wives of colored soldiers. The general answered that the charge of false pretenses was a criminal one and the woman would be held for trial upon it. "But," said Hurd, "she is my property and I want her." "No," answered the general, "we keep our own prisoners." The general said to me privately, after Hurd was gone: "The woman has a husband in our service and I know it; but never mind that. We'll beat these rebels at their own game." Hurd hung about headquarters two or three days until General Palmer said finally: "I have no time to try this case; take it before the provost marshal." The latter, who had been given the hint, delayed action for several days more, and then turned over the case to General Dodge. After another delay, which still further tortured the slave trader, General Dodge said to me one day: "James, bring Mary to my headquarters, supply her with rations, have a guard ready, and call Hurd as a witness." When the slave trader had made his statement to the same effect as before, General Dodge delivered judgment in the following words: "Hurd, you are an honest man. It is a clear case. All I have to do, Mary, is to sentence you to keep away from this department during the remainder of the present war. James, take her across the river and see her on board the cars." "But, general," whined Hurd, "that won't do. I shall lose her services if you send her north." "You have nothing to do with it; you are only a witness in this case," answered the general. I carried out the order strictly, to remain with Mary until the cars started; and under the protection of a file of guards, she was soon placed on the train en route for Cincinnati.

Among the slaves I rescued and brought to the refugee camp was a girl named Laura, who had been locked up by her mistress in a cellar and left to remain there two days and as many nights without food or drink. Two refugee slave women were seen by their master making toward my camp, and calling upon a policeman he had then seized and taken to the house of his brother-in-law on Washington street. When the facts were reported to me, I took a squad of guards to the house and rescued them. As I came out of the house with the slave women, their master asked me: "What are you going to do with them?" I answered that they would probably take care of themselves. He protested that he had always used the runaway women well, and appealing to one of them, asked: "Have I not, Angelina?" I directed the woman to answer the question, saying that she had as good a right to speak as he had, and that I would protect her in that right. She then said: "He tied my dress over my head Sunday and whipped me for refusing to carry victuals to the bushwhackers and guerrillas in the woods." I brought the women to camp, and soon afterwards sent them north to find homes. I sent one girl rescued by me under somewhat similar circumstances as far as this city to find a home with Colonel Klinck's family.

Up to that time in my career I had never received serious injury at any man's hands. I was several times reviled and hustled by mobs in my first tour of the district about the city of Rochester, and once when I was lecturing in New Hampshire a reckless, half-drunken fellow in the lobby fired a pistol at me, the ball shattering the plaster a few feet from my head. But, as I said, I had never received serious injury. Now, however, I received a blow, the effects of which I shall carry to my grave. General Palmer sent me to the shop of a blacksmith who was suspected of bushwhacking, with an order requiring the latter to report at headquarters. The rebel, who was a powerful man, raised a short iron bar as I entered and aimed a savage blow at my head. By an instinctive movement I saved my life, but the blow fell on my neck and shoulders, and I was for a long time afterwards disabled by the injury. My right hand remains partially paralyzed and almost wholly useless to this day.

Many a sad scene I witnessed at my camp of colored refugees in Louisville. There was the mother bereaved of her children, who had been sold and sent farther South lest they should escape in the general rush for the federal lines and freedom; children, orphaned in fact if not in name, for separation from parents among the colored people in those days left no hope of reunion this side the grave; wives forever parted from their husbands, and husbands who might never hope to catch again the brightening eye and the welcoming smile of the help-mates whose hearts God and nature had joined to theirs. Such recollections come fresh to me when with trembling voice I sing the old familiar song of anti-slavery days:

Oh deep was the anguish of the slave mother's heart
When called from her darling forever to part;
So grieved that lone mother, that broken-hearted mother
In sorrow and woe.
The child was borne off to a far-distant clime
While the mother was left in anguish to pine;
But reason departed, and she sank broken-hearted
In sorrow and woe.

I remained at Louisville a little over three years, staying for some months after the war closed in charge of the colored camp, the hospital, dispensary and government stores.

Wonderful Eventful Life of Rev. Thomas James, by himself
Third Edition, Rochester, NY: Post-Express Printing Company, Mill Street. 1887.

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George Browder

George Browder was a slave-holding minister in Logan County. This is his account of the day all his slaves ran away.

June 8, 1864

A day of strange feelings! Found my plantation entirely deserted by negroes - not one left! Abram, Bob, Jeff, George & Ellen, Dolly Underwood, William, Ida, Nicholas, & Lucy all gone! Took my wagon, old carriage, two horses & two mules. We felt lighter some how than usual, felt poorer, but freer, more dependent, yet more self-reliant. Lizzie got breakfast & I milked the cows. The children seemed gleeful & at the family prayer we earnestly involved Gods blessing guidance and good providence in our new circumstances. William & I with a number of others set out in search of our horses and wagons. Ten negroes left me -- 3 from father -- 8 from Nelson Waters -- six from McCulloch, 3 from John Vick & others in a different neighborhood. We met part of the troop arrested and brought back -- & had a vast deal of trouble and vexation in separated & deciding what to do with them. George & Ellen & all mine except Jeff and Abe escaped leaving their clothes & all their goods. We put the men under guard to send to Louisville & just as my wagon and carriage got in with the baggage, my brother William came with all the rest of the fugitives -- looking worn, sad and confounded. They had been overtaken in a few miles of Clarksville. We whipped Jeff & Bob & Lucy, & Ellen made herself sick -- quite sick -- in the long tramp through heat, mud & rain, after they left the wagons.

Poor unfortunate creatures, how I pity them, deceived & misled as they have been, yet listening to strangers rather than those who have raised & cared for them. They have been greatly abused in their minds. I should have been glad if they had gotten safe into Clarksville without my responsibility.

The Heavens Are Weeping: The Diaries of George R. Browder
Edited by Richard R. Troutman
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Books. 1987.

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