Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War
Free at Last makes available in a single volume the most
moving and informative documents from the first four volumes of
Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation.
The triumph and travail of emancipation emerge in the
words of the participants–liberated slaves and defeated
slaveholders, soldiers and civilians, common folk and
aristocrats, Northerners and Southerners. The documents reveal
the active role of slaves and former slaves in escaping slavery,
aiding the Union cause as laborers and soldiers, transforming the
war for the Union into a war against slavery, and giving meaning
to their newly won freedom in a nation wracked by warfare and
Available in paperback and suitable for
classroom use, Free at Last includes a convenient chronology of wartime
emancipation and suggestions for further reading.
Free at Last received the Lincoln Prize, which is awarded annually to the finest scholarly work on the Civil War era.
Copies of Free at Last may be purchased from The New Press online, by telephone (800-233-4830), or by fax (212-629-8617). 571 pp. Cloth ISBN 1-56584-015-1; paperback ISBN 1-56584-120-4.
Sample Documents from the Volume
- Commander of the Department of Virginia to the General-in-Chief of the Army, May 7, 1861
General Benjamin F. Butler, the federal commander at Fortress
Monroe, Virginia, explained his rationale for accepting and
providing for fugitive slaves who had come into his lines, even though
the Union had pledged not to interfere with slavery.
- Missouri Unionist to the Commander of the Department of the West, May 14, 1861, and the Commander's Reply, May 14, 1861
Writing to the Union commander at St. Louis, a white Missourian
sought and received assurances that the federal government would
- Order by the Commander of the Department of Virginia, November 1, 1861
General John E. Wool, the Union commander at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, instituted an arrangement in which ex-slave men
employed by the army drew rations and were credited with wages–most of which were not paid to the workers but
applied to the support of ex-slave women, children, and aged or disabled men.
- Commander at Camp Nevin, Kentucky, to the Commander of the Department of the Cumberland, November 5, 1861; and the Latter's Reply, November 8, 1861
A general in the Union state of Kentucky found fugitive slaves
useful as military laborers, but hesitated to employ them for fear of
alienating their owners. His superior, General William T.
Sherman, directed him to avoid the dilemma by excluding runaways
from his lines altogether.
- Governor of Maryland to the Secretary of War, November 18, 1861
When a Maryland slaveowner trying to recover his fugitive slave was driven away from a camp of Massachusetts soldiers, he
appealed to Thomas H. Hicks, the governor of Maryland, who urged the Secretary of War to enforce the law,
protect slave property, and thereby ensure the state's loyalty.
Black Ohioan to the Secretary of War, November 27, 1861
Initially barred from serving as Union soldiers, black men in parts of the North nevertheless formed militia companies and began drilling on their own. A freeman in Ohio beseeched Secretary of War Simon Cameron for a chance to strike a blow against the rebels.
- Governor of Massachusetts to the Secretary of War, December 7, 1861
Governor John A. Andrew protested when he
learned that soldiers from his state had been ordered to return
several slaves who had come into their encampment in Maryland.
- Commander of the South Carolina Expeditionary Corps to the Adjutant General of the Army, December 15, 1861
Left behind on plantations by owners fleeing federal invasion, former slaves on the South Carolina sea islands generally
remained in place and worked for themselves–to the annoyance of a commander of the invading force who had hoped to employ them as military laborers.
- Maryland Fugitive Slave to His Wife, January 12, 1862
For John Boston, the triumph of his own escape to freedom within Union lines was tainted by the resulting separation from his wife.
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- Maryland Legislators to the Secretary of War, March 10, 1862, Enclosing Affidavit of a Maryland Slaveholder, March 1, 1862
Learning of incidents in which Union soldiers had thwarted
attempts by slaveholders to recover escaped slaves, a delegation
of Maryland legislators protested to Secretary of War Edwin M.
- Resolution by the Washington, D.C., City Council, April [1?], 1862
As the U.S. Congress considered a proposal to emancipate slaves
in the District of Columbia, Washington's City Council objected
that the measure would lead to an influx of an unwelcome population.
- Headquarters of the Defenses North of the Potomac to the
Commander of a New York Regiment, April 6, 1862
Citing a new article of war recently passed by Congress, General Abner Doubleday instructed a regimental commander to allow fugitive slaves into Union lines and treat them “as persons and not as chattels.”
- Commander of the 3rd Division of the Army of the Ohio to the Secretary of War, and the Latter's Reply, May 4 and 5, 1862
When a Union general operating in northern Alabama informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he had promised protection to slaves who had provided vital military information, Stanton approved, arguing that refusal to employ the services of slaves would handicap the Union war effort.
- Proclamation by the President, May 19, 1862
After General David Hunter issued an order declaring free all the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, President Lincoln quickly overruled him and used the occasion to press his own plan for gradual emancipation, with compensation to owners.
- Commander of the 5th Division of the Army of the Tennessee to a Tennessee Slaveholder, August 24, 1862
Writing to a former West Point classmate, General William T. Sherman offered a disquisition on why he would not return fugitive slaves to their owners.
- Committee of Chaplains and Surgeons to the Commander of the Department of the Missouri, December 29, 1862
Although by late 1862 the federal government had pledged to protect fugitive slaves and encouraged the employment of those capable of military labor, the promise of protection was often hollow, as three officers at Helena, Arkansas, reported.
- Headquarters of a Confederate Cavalry Battalion to the Headquarters of the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, January 8, 1863
After capturing a former slave who had reached Union lines and then attempted to return home and liberate others, a Confederate officer asked his superiors how to deal with such “missionaries” of freedom.
- Military Governor of North Carolina to the Commander of the
Department of North Carolina, January 20, 1863
Outraged by an incident in which ex-slave military laborers, joined by federal soldiers, had forcibly liberated the family of one of the laborers, slaveholders complained to Edward Stanly, whom President Lincoln had appointed military governor of North Carolina; Stanly conveyed their protest to the state's military commander.
- Commander of the Guard at Kenner, Louisiana, to the Headquarters of a Brigade in the Department of the Gulf, January 27, 1863
Former slaves employed by the army repairing levees near New Orleans, a Northern officer reported, were working and living in conditions that compared unfavorably to slavery.
- Louisiana Freedmen to the Provost Marshal General of the Department of the Gulf, April 5, 1863, and Statement of the Commander of Camp Hoyt, Louisiana, April 5, 1863
Former slaves living on a plantation in southern Louisiana that had been abandoned by its owner received a Union provost marshal's permission to farm it on their own, only to have another claimant challenge their right to do so. At the freedpeople's request, a federal officer reported on what they had accomplished.
- Testimony by the Superintendent of
Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, before the American
Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, May 9, 1863
Captain Charles B. Wilder explained how fugitive slaves,
once having escaped to Union lines, worked to liberate fellow slaves and
spread the word of freedom deep in Confederate territory.
- Former Superintendent of the Poor in the Department of North
Carolina to the Chairman of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, May 25, 1863
Vincent Colyer, a Northern missionary who had supervised former slaves in Union-occupied North Carolina in 1862, described how they had assisted federal forces and supported themselves.
- Officer in a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Brigade, May 29, 1863
Writing to the chief recruiter of black troops in southern Louisiana, a Union officer reported the bravery of the black soldiers in the battle of Port Hudson, many of whom had until recently been slaves.
- Commander of the District of Northeastern Louisiana to the Headquarters of the Department of the Tennessee, June 12, 1863
A Union general described to his superiors the bloody battle of Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, the first test of combat for a brigade of newly enlisted black soldiers.
- Northern Minister to the Secretary of War, July 11, 1863
When federal authorities in Washington, D.C., were unable to obtain enough military laborers locally, they ordered the
forcible impressment of black men in coastal Virginia and North Carolina, wrenching hundreds from their homes and families.
- Mother of a Northern Black Soldier to the President, July 31, 1863
Shortly after the battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, a free-black woman whose son was serving in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry advised President Abraham Lincoln of his responsibility to prevent the Confederates from enslaving captured black soldiers.
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- Commander of a North Carolina Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Brigade, September 13, 1863
Colonel James C. Beecher, commander of a regiment of former slaves from North Carolina, protested when his men were treated more like uniformed laborers than soldiers.
- Massachusetts Black Corporal to the President, September 28, 1863
On behalf of the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Corporal James Henry Gooding protested the injustice of the Union's paying its black soldiers–in this case, Northern free men rather than Southern ex-slaves–less than their white comrades.
- North Carolina Freedmen to the Commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, November 20, 1863
Black men who had been forcibly impressed to perform military labor for the Union army addressed an indignant petition to General Benjamin F. Butler.
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- North Carolina Slaveholder to the Confederate President, November 25, 1863
In an area not far from Union lines, a patrol guard and a pack of hounds helped prevent slaves from running away – at least until members of the patrol were drafted into the Confederate army. One slaveholder asked President Jefferson Davis to return the patrol to its former duties.
- Marriage Certificate of a Black Soldier and His Wife, December 3, 1863 [image (125K)]
The marriage of two former slaves, Private Rufus Wright and Elisabeth Turner, was presided over by a black army chaplain, the Reverend Henry M. Turner.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, December 30, 1863
Martha Glover of Missouri, who remained enslaved after her husband enlisted in the Union army, described to him the burdens
she and their children had subsequently borne.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, January 19, 1864
The wife of a slave who had enlisted in the Union army warned her husband against sending money in the care of her owner, in whose custody she remained, for fear he would intercept it.
- Testimony by a Northern Woman, January? 1864
The wife of a Northern army chaplain recalled the fate of a settlement of black families that located with an officer's
permission near Fort Albany, in northern Virginia close to Washington, D.C., until an order from higher military
authority ousted them.
- Staff Assistant of the Superintendent of Freedmen for the State of Arkansas to the Superintendent, February 5, 1864
A Union officer reported upon his visit to a woodyard established by private contractors on the banks of the Mississippi River and a nearby shantytown that was home to 183 former slaves, 96 of whom were described as “infirm & under age.”
- Testimony by a Corporal in a Louisiana Black Regiment before the American
Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, February? 1864
After escaping slavery in 1861, Octave Johnson of Louisiana lived in the woods for more than a year before entering Union lines near New Orleans, after which he first worked as a military labor and later enlisted as a soldier.
- Plantation Regulations by a U.S. Treasury Agent, February 1864 [image (86K)]
A broadside announced the rules governing the employment of black laborers on plantations in Union-occupied Louisiana.
- Black Soldier in Virginia to His Wife, April 22 and May 25, 1864
In letters to his wife, a black soldier not only described a battle in which his regiment participated but also passed along more mundane news.
- Maryland Slave to the President, August 25, 1864
Maryland's exclusion from the Emancipation Proclamation left Annie Davis still a slave. Insistent on her right to freedom, she demanded that President Abraham Lincoln himself clarify her status.
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- Maryland Black Soldier to the Mother of a Dead Comrade, August 19, 1864
A black soldier from Maryland consoled the mother of a friend who had died in combat.
- New York Black Soldier to the President, [August] 1864
In an unsigned letter, a Northern black soldier stationed in Louisiana described the toll that hard labor and short rations were taking on the men of his regiment.
- Commander of a Black Brigade to the Commander of the District of
Eastern Virginia, September 1, 1864
When a group of ex-slave men working as Union military laborers returned home to liberate families and friends, they were accompanied by a detachment of black soldiers, whose brigade commander reported the outcome of the expedition.
- Missouri Black Soldier to His Enslaved Daughters, and to the Owner of One of His Daughters, September 3, 1864
Private Spotswood Rice promised his daughters–and warned the woman who owned one of them–that their liberation was at hand.
- Superintendent of the Organization of Kentucky Black Troops to the Adjutant General of the Army, October 20, 1864
General James S. Brisbin described to his superiors how the “jeers and taunts” that white Union soldiers had directed toward newly enlisted black soldiers were silenced by the latter's bravery under fire.
- Keeper of Sandy Point Lighthouse to a Baltimore Judge, November 6, 1864
Shortly after a new state constitution abolished slavery in Maryland, a unionist observer described the efforts of local citizens to nullify the former slaves' freedom.
- Statement of a Maryland Freedwoman, November 14, 1864
Freed by the adoption of a new state constitution that abolished slavery, Jane Kamper confronted her former owner, who attempted to keep her children under his control by having them apprenticed to him.
- Mother of a Pennsylvania Black Soldier to the President, November 21, 1864
Apprensive about her son's safety as well as her own welfare, the elderly mother of a black soldier petitioned President Lincoln for his release from further service, on the grounds that he was her sole support.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, November 26, 1864
Threatened by their owner, the wife and children of Joseph Miller had accompanied him when he enlisted in the Union army. Miller described the ordeal that followed the expulsion of his family from the camp in which they took refuge.
- Escaped Union Prisoners of War to the Provost Marshal General of
the Department of the South, December 7, 1864
Two captured Union officers who slipped their guards in Charleston, South Carolina, recounted the saga of their safe return to federal lines–abetted by black people, slave and free, and by German-immigrant unionists in the city.
- Black Residents of Nashville, Tennessee, to the Union Convention of Tennessee, January 9, 1865
In a petition to a convention of white unionists that was considering reorganization of the state government and the abolition of slavery, black Tennesseans argued that black men were fit to exercise all the privileges of citizenship.
- Provost Marshal of the 2nd Subdistrict of North Missouri to the
Provost Marshal General of the Department of the Missouri, January 12, 1865
Slaveholders in Missouri who expected a state constitutional convention to abolish slavery showed less interest in holding on to former slaves than in shedding responsibility for them, a Union officer informed his superior.
- Meeting between Black Religious Leaders and Union Military Authorities, January 12, 1865
A Northern newspaper reported the proceedings of a remarkable gathering in Savannah, Georgia. Twenty black ministers and lay leaders met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General William T. Sherman to consider the future of the thousands of slaves freed by the march of Sherman's army.
- Chaplain of a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Regimental Adjutant, February 1, 1865
In a report to the Bureau of Colored Troops, the white chaplain of a Louisiana black regiment surveyed the changes he had witnessed among his men since their enlistment.
- Chaplain of an Arkansas Black Regiment to the Adjutant General of the Army, February 28, 1865
The chaplain of a black regiment in Arkansas confirmed the importance of marriage to the freedpeople and described their conviction that wartime emancipation was less an end than a beginning.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier's Widow, March 25, 1865
After her husband enlisted in the Union army in late 1864, Patsy Leach endured abuse at the hands of their enraged owner, a Confederate sympathizer in Kentucky. Fearing for her life, she fled with her youngest child, leaving four other children behind.
North Carolina Black Soldiers to the Freedmen's Bureau
Commissioner, May or June 1865
At the end of the war, black soldiers stationed near Petersburg, Virginia, wrote to the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau to protest the suffering of their wives, children, and parents at a settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
- Delegation of Black Kentuckians to the President, late June, 1865
Fearing that President Andrew Johnson might lift martial law in Kentucky – a Union state in which slavery remained legal, although crippled by the events of the war – black Kentuckians traveled to Washington to acquaint Johnson with the state of affairs and present him with their petition.
- Affidavit of a Tennessee Freedman, September 13, 1865
After the war, a freedman who had attempted unsuccessfully to flee from his owner in 1864 described the horrific punishment inflicted on him after his capture.
- Order by the Commander of a Kentucky Black Regiment, October 5, 1865
When former slaves in a Mississippi town sought to establish a school, they enlisted the aid of two noncommissioned officers in a black regiment stationed nearby.
- Kentucky Black Sergeant to the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, October 8, 1865
In a letter to an official of the Freedmen's Bureau, a black sergeant from Kentucky emphasized the importance of education to his people.
- Tennessee Black Soldier to the Commander of the Military Division of the Tennessee, November 19, 1865, and Commander of a Tennessee Black Regiment to Division Headquarters, December 14, 1865
A black soldier stationed in Alabama protested that his regimental officers forbade the wives of the enlisted men from visiting camp, prompting his regimental commander to defend the need for stringent discipline and cast aspersions on the men's attachment to the women they regarded as their wives.
- Mississippi Black Soldier to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, December 16, 1865
Outraged by oppressive laws enacted by the Mississippi state legislature and outbreaks of violence against freedpeople, Private Calvin Holly wrote the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner to describe conditions and propose a solution.
- South Carolina Black Soldier to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, January 13, 1866
With Union victory won and emancipation secure, the spokesman for soldiers in a South Carolina black regiment asked their departmental commander to allow them to leave the service and return to families who were suffering in their absence.
- Statement of a Tennessee Freedwoman, February 27, 1866
Months after the war, one of four black women whose duties in military hospitals had taken them to Georgia, Tennessee, and
Alabama recounted their travels before an official of the Freedmen's Bureau to whom they had applied for assistance in
claiming unpaid wages.
- Affidavit of the Wife of a Discharged Georgia Black Soldier, September 25, 1866
The wife of a discharged soldier paid a high price for his association with the Union army.
- Testimony by an Alabama Freedman before the Southern Claims
Commission, July 31, 1872
With slavery in northern Alabama unravelling during 1862, Alfred Scruggs became free in fact if not at law. In postwar testimony, Scruggs described how he and his wife had labored to acquire livestock of their own, only to lose it to federal impressment parties in 1864.
- Testimony by a South Carolina Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, March 17, 1873
Alonzo Jackson, during the war a slave at Georgetown, on the South Carolina coast, described for a postwar commission the assistance he had rendered Northern soldiers who escaped from the prisoner-of-war stockade at Florence, in the interior of the state.
- Testimony by a Georgia Freedwoman before the Southern Claims Commission, March 22, 1873
The Union troops who in late 1864 liberated Nancy Johnson and her husband from slavery also stripped them of property they had painstakingly accumulated, undermining their ability to support themselves in freedom. Attempting to gain compensation years later, she testified before a federal commission.
- Testimony of an Arkansas Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, June 6, 1873
Robert Houston of Arkansas recounted his wartime experiences as a slave on a plantation, a fugitive from
Confederate labor impressment, a laborer on a federal gunboat, an independent woodcutter, and a Union soldier.
Testimony by a Georgia Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, July 17, 1873
News of federal emancipation policies traveled fast among slaves in the Confederacy, sometimes borne by slaves who had returned home after accompanying their owners to the front lines. One such slave was Samuel Elliott, who years after the war recalled the reaction of fellow slaves on his plantation.