Black History: Letters Home

poster

A poster from the Civil War designed to recruit Black soldiers

harkness-verplanck

Capt. E.J. Harkness and Lt. Robert Verplanck in 1864 (Mount Gulian Historic Site)

For the Verplanck family, who owned Mount Gulian in what is now Beacon, the Civil War marked the end of a generational change in perspective toward slavery.

Historian Myra Young Armstead documented the progression of thought from Samuel Verplanck, a Revolutionary War-era slave owner who endorsed only a gradual end to the institution, to his great-great-grandson, Robert Verplanck, who graduated from Harvard in 1863 and immediately took command of a company in the U.S. Colored Troops.

Fifty-two of Robert’s letters home during the Civil War were preserved. Below are excerpts that mention his Black troops; they have been copyedited for clarity.

Philadelphia, Sept. 17, 1863

The regiment is composed of as fine a set of men as I ever saw in my life and if we officers do our duty they can be made great soldiers. I talked with some of my company and found them to be quite well-informed men and as happy as could be and I know I shall like them first-rate.

Yorktown, Virginia, Nov. 26, 1863

Our paymaster is to come today but the men will not take any money as the monthly pay is only $7 instead of the $13 as they expected. [Black soldiers were designated as “laborers” rather than soldiers by the federal government and paid $10 rather than $13 a month; unlike white soldiers, they had $3 deducted as a clothing allowance.] It does certainly seem hard that they should not get full pay when they were promised it by the men that enlisted them at the North and, for a drafted man, it is certainly harder yet.

The men are all hard enough up for money but they consider it a matter of pride and are willing to let the money go. One of our men said that if he was not to be put on an equality with white troops he was willing to serve the government for nothing. I am sorry that they will not take the $7 as they will be without a good many little comforts which they would otherwise have, but at the same time I must say I admire their spirit.

Yorktown, Dec. 7, 1863

I am right in the middle of [abolitionist] Fanny Kemble’s book [Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839] and consider it as interesting as anything I ever read of its kind. What a horrid book it would have been to read before the Emancipation Act, but now it makes us appreciate the real worth of that glorious edict. In what blissful ignorance we conservatives of the North all lived before the war and how our eyes have been opened.

Yorktown, Dec. 16, 1863

About three in the morning the cavalry came in with their prisoners, having captured the whole gang [of rebels], not one escaping, and immediately there was a detail of 20 men made from our regiment to guard them. I can tell you it made them savage to have the black soldiers put over them but they had to grin & bear it as Colonel West, who had command, believes in black troops & don’t believe in catering to the tastes of rebels.

The major was in command of the left wing during the morning being in the rear & I marched most of the time alongside of him. He was might anxious to have a fight and was as funny as could be. Whenever we saw a darkie we would make him fall in & when he had children & wife they came along too in the wagons that our general had sent with us for that very purpose.

[The black soldiers] worked with a will [to help] & must have seen what a glorious position their own was, that of aiding in the freedom of one of their own race. The white trash kept close in their homes, looking on at these proceedings but showing no signs of their much talked-of bravery. They did so hate having their homes searched by nigger soldiers.

Yorktown, Jan. 1, 1864

We are getting recruits for the regiment every day now, our company having got two already. They are both men who have just escaped from Richmond & one of them had been hid in the woods for three weeks or more before he could get into our lines. He showed by his appearance what he had gone through with not having hardly a covering for his body. But after he got his military suit on him he made a tiptop looking soldier and he will fight too for he is as bitter against them as —

Yorktown, Jan. 21, 1864

The 5th U.S. Colored Troops has arrived here and is encamped near us. They are from Ohio & are a very fine body of men. Let the government concentrate the black regiments here & let it be their part of the glorious work of giving the death blow to the rebellion & you may bet they will do their part as well as it can be done.

The chaplain who has just come here is going to manage a school assisted by the officers. As we have little or nothing to do now there will a good chance to teach those who cannot read some of the rudiments. I think the chaplain is a first rate man for the place. I can tell you it is pretty high position for a colored man, his salary is about $1,400. Col. Ames showed his sense in desiring a black man for the place. It seems queer to hear you talking about crossing the river on the ice when it is warm enough here to go bathing. Certainly these fellows who lived down here had a better climate than they deserved.

Hampton Roads, Virginia, April 22, 1864

There is a large force of colored troops collecting here comprising all arms of the service under Gen. Wild, who is to be put in the advance. Gen. Butler visited our regiment last evening and saw our dress parade; he scrutinized every man & seemed very well pleased. We marched from Yorktown, a distance of 24 miles, in less than 12 hours and that too with the men heavily loaded.

Hampton Roads, Virginia, April 26, 1864

Again another change for me as I am now on the staff of Gen. E.W. Hinks commanding a division of colored troops to which our regiment has been attached. At present, as a matter of course, I feel somewhat like a fish out of water rushing about on my horse carrying messages and orders. We are organizing our division as fast as possible but on account of the hundreds of material things absolutely necessary before we can move it will take a week more at least to put us in war trim and then the first large body of black troops will go in together and will make an impression I believe as never been felt before.

City Point, Virginia, May 12, 1864

We made a reconnaissance within about three miles of Petersburg three days ago & had several very nice little scuffles with the rebs. Capt. Livermore & myself were the company of colored cavalry in front all the time & had lots of fun. The contrabands [escaped slaves] are coming in in large numbers & I think we will have quite a number of recruits although the greater part are old men & women, the able-bodied men having been taken away to work for the rebels.

Some of the contrabands that have come in show terrible marks of the tyranny of their masters. They are all very willing to go work & our quartermaster has them organized to work on the docks.

City Point, June 2, 1864

All the contrabands who come in say they are terribly afraid of the “smoked Yanks” and steer clear of them if possible. They took one fellow prisoner by dashing on our picket line, but in the night he managed to make his escape bringing with him his gun & equipment and perfect information as to their numbers, which he gives as 3,000.

Some of the men who were wounded slightly [in the engagement] went right out again as soon as the doctor dressed their wounds saying they were bound to get square with them before they stopped. Contrabands say the railroad was useless about 20 days. By the way I have got a first-rate fellow who left Petersburg on Monday & who knows every road & by path from here to there. He was a slave of an old fellow we picked up two weeks ago about 10 miles from here moving into the town with his furniture. David, my boy, was delighted to hear we had got him & laughed heartily when I told him how we made him march in the ranks with the colored troops.

City Point, June 11, 1864

I lost one of the best soldiers in my company. He was shot by a sharpshooter, right alongside Capt. Sheldon. Gen. Wild has been cutting up some of his peculiar [shows?] down at Wilson’s Wharf. For the sake of “historical justice,” as he expressed it, he had some slaves who came in our lines — men & women both — tie up a prisoner he captured, an old fellow at that, and strip him and whip him till his back was sore.

The general is awfully angry with him on account of this and his general style of plundering & stealing. Wild is a poor tool, for he is of no account in a military vein and a man who is always in trouble through his insane ideas on the subject of slavery.

The Christian Recorder, a paper published by the colored people of Philadelphia, has a letter from Wilson’s Wharf giving an account of the proceedings. The general told me to answer it and I suppose the answer will be published. I can tell you, Gen. Hicks is bound to make soldiers of these men and he does not intend to have them demoralized by generals who believe that the African race can be elevated by giving them the whip which once lacerated his own back.

Headquarters, 3rd Division, 18th A.C., Aug. 1, 1864

You have no doubt read in the papers before this that the whole plan [to capture Petersburg, Virginia] failed and that plan one of the best that could be possibly devised. There occurred against just on the eve of complete victory one of those inexplicable things a panic. Now let us give the colored troops of Gen. Burnsides corps fair play. They ran — indeed, all ran, white & black — but thank heavens the colored men did not begin the retreat.

After the black men had carried the last line (and splendidly did they advance, being more than half killed or wounded before they reached the rebel line) the 112th N.Y. of Bell’s Brigade, Turner’s division, were ordered up to support the line the black men had carried, they not having men enough left to hold it. The rebels, just as they were filing in, poured in on them a raking fire. The 112th N.Y. broke & ran and the black troops in rear gave way and the glorious morning’s work was lost.

Headquarters, 3rd Division, 18th A.C., Aug. 22, 1864

Father is certainly right in regard to freed man as a soldier and Gen. Sherman is sound too, although a little harsh. An officer cannot by mean of persuasion alone make these poor fellow who have been cowed all their lives active & spirited enough for effective soldiers. There is a sleepiness about them, which must have the old lash. I am sorry to own it before it can be eradicated.

In this division, we have but two contraband regiments and we have found that their behavior in the trenches under fire showed that the element of manhood was wanting. There is, however, plenty for them to do in the way of digging & pioneering & thus they will relieve the others better suited for fighting.

I think there is getting to be a much more healthy & sensible opinion in regard to colored troops. Their opposers are hardly to be found in the army, while the enthusiastic & fanatical on the subject are beginning to see things in their proper light. I must say my views have changed somewhat.

Headquarters, 1st Brig. 3rd Div., 6th A.C.
Danville, Virginia, May 1, 1865

These people [Southerners] were not more than half civilized & never could be with slavery about them. I am proud to say that this corps is just as strong on the slavery question as I am myself; there has been a great change. Now the officers and men have seen for themselves and without exception are abolitionists. I have seen an officer shake in the face of an old slave holder the bloody lash with which he whipped his Negroes, and in their presence, too. The day of retribution has indeed come. How different we feel since the death of the president! The South will repent that act in weeping & anguish.

Headquarters, 1st Brig, 3rd Div., 6th A.C.
Danville, May 10, 1865

Yesterday Major Leonard & I rode over 40 miles. I must say there are some very nice people in North Carolina. I am surprised to find people who are delighted that slavery is abolished and understand what a benefit it will be for both white & black. Here and there, however, we met rich old rebels who are just as bitter as ever and you may bet we talked pretty strong to them.

In Lancyville quite a crowd collected and I got into a talk with a rebel officer and much to the delight of the poorer class and the Negroes used him up pretty badly and gave him to understand that the “nigger-owning aristocracy” was about used up, for hereafter the poor man was to have a chance.

Many of the papers give a wrong idea in regard to the Negroes when they say that they are doing nothing & are crowding into our camps & stealing & etc. It is not so; wherever I have been I find them working in the fields and tending to orders [?] as before; their former masters in many cases have made bargains with them in some cases to work for money & with others for parts of the crop.

When we consider what an incident it is in their lives and how easily they are excited, it certainly speaks well for them to find them working on quietly & patiently. These landowners know well enough that they can nothing without them & many say so; why the Negro here is not only the field hand, but he is the skilled mechanic, the horseshoer, the carpenter, the shoe maker, the cabinet maker.

It is so foolish for people to trouble themselves about the Negroes going North or thinking that he is a burden to the country. Ask the Southern landowner, he will tell you differently, now that he sees that he has got to accept emancipation. I always top along the road where I find the darkies working to find out how they feel. They are always happy and contented and perfectly willing to work and at the same time they appreciate perfectly what has been going on. It would have done Lincoln’s heart good to have known that he was loved as a father and worshipped as a savior by these poor degraded people here.

I see that [John Wilkes] Booth was tracked through the information of a Negro. There have certainly been some very curious facts connected with that terrible affair.

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