A Real, Live Slave (July 5, 1864)

A group of ex-slaves freed by the advance of the Union armies. Such freed slaves became known as "contrabands of war" (Library of Congress).

A group of ex-slaves freed by the advance of the Union army. Such freed slaves became known as “contrabands of war” (Library of Congress).

As I have pointed out before, Theodore Lyman’s views on race and slavery were very much those of a nineteenth-century man. He was, it seems, gaining a grudging respect for the black fighting men but he appears little concerned about how the Civil War was ending the institution of slavery. For Lyman, African-Americans were strange and exotic creatures, the objects of amused and detached observation. A case in point is his letter of July 5, in which he encounters an elderly ex-slave. Lyman finds her entertaining without seeming to consider that being liberated from a long lifetime of working in bondage to a man who owned you might be cause for a good deal of chuckling. (“The two Frenchies” are the French observers who are visiting the Army of the Potomac.)

City Point was at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers. Ulysses S. Grant had established his headquarters here, on a bluff high above the Appomattox. The arrival of the Union Army’s transformed the once quiet spot into a scene of great bustling activity.

A photograph of City Point, taken on July 5, 1864 (Library of Congress).

A photograph of City Point, taken on July 5, 1864 (Library of Congress).

In his journal entry for July 5, Lyman mentions hearing a messenger enter Meade’s tent with a dispatch that night. “Very well, tell Wright to send a good division,” he heard Meade say. “I supposed it will be Ricketts.” Then Meade went back to sleep. The occasion was an emergency to the north. While still at Cold Harbor, Lee had dispatched Jubal Early, his “bad old man,” on a mission to redirect the Union’s attention toward its own backyard. Early had marched north down the Shenandoah Valley, brushing aside Union resistance, and entered Maryland, where he battled outnumbered Federal defenders outside Frederick near the Monocacy River. He continued on until he reached Washington’s outer defenses. This was precisely the scenario that Lincoln had long feared—that the Army of the Potomac would move so far south that it would leave the nation’s capital wide open to a Confederate attack.

Another view of City Point, also taken on July 5, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Another view of City Point, also taken on July 5, 1864 (Library of Congress).

I forgot to tell you that yesterday there appeared a waggon of the Sanitary Commission bearing a gift for the comfort of Headquarters. With it came the agent, Mr. Johnson, a dried-up Philadelphian, of a serious countenance. He brought some ice, mutton, canned fruit, etc., for the behoof of the suffering hossifers, and was received with sweet smiles. This morning we made up a quartette, the two Frenchies, Rosencrantz and myself, and made a journey to City Point, distant some twelve or thirteen miles. It was not unpleasant, though the sun was extremely hot; for we took back roads in the woods and escaped a good share of dust. Before getting to the City Point road, near Bailey’s, we stopped at one Epps’s house. Epps himself with family had been called on sudden business to Petersburg, about the time Smith moved up; but some of his nigs remained. Among others a venerable “Aunty,” of whom I asked her age. “Dunno,” replied the Venerable, “but I know I’se mighty old: got double gran’ children.” She then began to chuckle much, and said: “Massa allers made me work, ‘cause he was ugly; but since you uns is come, I don’t have to do nuphun. Oh! I’se powerful glad you uns is come. I didn’t know thar was so many folks in the whole world as I seen round here.” I told the old lady to use up everything she could find, and left her chuckling continuously and plainly impressed with the idea that I was a very pleasant gentleman. Guzman, meantime, looked on with irrepressible astonishment, having never before seen a real, live slave. At City Point I delivered some despatches at General Grant’s, and after went down and saw the Sanitary boats. They have three of them, large ones, moored permanently side by side, and full of all sorts of things, and especially a host of boxes, no two alike. The upper deck, to render it attractive, was ornamented with a pile of two or three hundred pairs of crutches. For myself I got some iced lemonade on board, and retired much refreshed and highly patriotic. One of the great sights down there is the huge army hospital, a whole plain, white with large tents. These are capable of receiving 7000 patients and have at present about 3000. All are under charge of my excellent classmate, Dr. Ned Dalton.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 182-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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  1. Danielle Strader

     /  April 6, 2020

    How can we acquire these prints?


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