From John Hennessy (for a relevant earlier post, click here):
I continue to work through source material related to the 1862 exodus of slaves through Fredericksburg. One of the more interesting aspects of all this is gauging the response of Union soldiers to the appearance of slave in Union lines. While many are racist, few can muster themselves to oppose freedom when confronted by it in human form. More importantly, the presence of slaves prompted a good deal of reflection by soldiers on slaves and slavery, some of it eloquent, some of it colloquial, but all of it revealing. Here is a letter written by a soldier of the 20th New York State Militia just a few days after the Union army’s arrival on the banks of the Rappahannock. It is one of the most eloquent we have of a soldier–clearly predisposed to favoring emancipation–grappling with (and taking advantage of) this new an unexpected phenomenon. Written on April 29, 1862, it was published in the Kingston Argus on May 7. We don’t know the man’s full name. He merely signed the letter, “C.”
“Contrabands” still come pouring in upon our camps, very many of them seeking and finding employment, and profession uniformly the utmost anxiety to escape from their impatiently-borne thraldom. That strong attachment to “Massa” and “Misses”, which, I often heard it said at the North, would lead them to cling to their Southern homes and refuse freedom even if it were offered, I havn’t yet happened to see,– With one voice they breathe longings for a Northern home, eager to turn their backs upon their masters forever, if they can only carry their families with them. It is impossible to look upon these poor people, an abject, meek…as they seem, so anxious to emerge from their condition of involuntary servitude, into an atmosphere where they can breathe as freely as the white man does, without feeling one’s sympathies strongly enlisted. One finds the question rising involuntarily, Is not the negro a man? Warmed with the same sun, hurt with the same weapons, having the same feelings, affections, aspirations that the white man has? Why then should he be a slave to his fellow man?
But I have no room for speculations here, and will only add, that your correspondent, in common with many others in the regiment and surrounding ones has secured the services of a man Friday, who was coachman and man of all work, to a prominent secessionist farmer down the Rappahannock. I find him a capital “help”–skilled and prepared to render almost any service required [line missing] and his “Massa” is a violent rebel, with two sons in the rebel army, I shall have no compunctions whatever in using the services of the “contraband” in promoting the interest of the Union cause, by promoting for the present those of one of its humblest supporters–and of giving him besides such “aid and comfort” in the matter of reaching the freedom that he craves, as shall not come in conflict with the sacred Constitution.