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[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81

The Civil War

A few of the narratives mention John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.  Drucilla Martin, age 102, recalled accompanying her mistress to Harpers Ferry to witness the hanging.  A fading memory may have accounted for discrepancies in the account. Conduct research to determine what aspects of the event Martin remembered incorrectly.  To what extent do discrepancies in her recollection of the event invalidate the account?

A number of enslaved men escaped and served with Union forces during the Civil War.  Thomas Cole, about 16 years old, escaped from a plantation in Alabama and headed north, where he came upon some Union soldiers in Tennessee.  He was put to work as a military laborer and later joined the army.  Cole describes action at the battles of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge.  Cole was over 90 years old when he was interviewed in Texas.

  • Use specific references to people and places mentioned in the interview to assist in determining the accuracy of the story Thomas Cole related about his experiences serving with the Union Army in 1863.  How accurate do you judge Cole’s account to be?
  • How did Cole describe his experiences serving with the Union Army?
  • Why did General George Thomas accuse Cole of being a coward?  What was Cole’s defense?

George Kye, a slave on Abraham Stover’s Arkansas plantation, served with the Confederate army as a substitute for his master:

When the War come along I was a grown man, and I went off to serve because old Master was too old to go, but he had to send somebody anyways.  I served as George Stover, but every time the sergeant would call “Abe Stover,” I would answer “Here.”

From “George Kye. Age 110 yrs.,” images 173-175

During the war, slaves were bombarded with pro-Confederate propaganda.  Read the interview with William M. Adams in which he recounted the efforts of white preachers to indoctrinate the slaves.

Jus’ fore de war, a white preacher he come to us slaves and says:  “Do you wan’t to keep you homes whar you git all to eat, and raise your chillen, or do you wan’t to be free to roam roun’, without a home, like de wil’ animals?  If you wan’ to keep you homes you better pray fer de South to win.  All dey wan’s to pray for de South to win, raise the hand.”  We all raised our hands ‘cause we was skeered not to, but we sho’ didn’ wan’ de South to win.

From “Ex-slave stories (Texas),” image 11


Katie Rowe, interviewed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told of Union forces in Northern Arkansas following the battle of Pea Ridge (1862).  Slaves on the plantation further south were warned that the remnants of the Union soldiers would never set them free.

Dem Yankees ain’t gwine git dis fur, but iffen dey to you all ain’t gwine git free by ‘em, ‘cause I qwine free you befo’ dat.  When dey git here dey going find you already free, ‘cause I gwine line you up on the bank of Bois d’Arc Creek and free you wid my shotgun!  Anybody miss just one lick wid de hoe, or one step in de line, or one clap of dat bell, or one toot of he horn, and he gwine be free and talking to de devil long befo’ he ever see a pair of blue britches.

From “Katie Rowe. Age 88 yrs.,” image 276

Lorenza Ezell described General Sherman’s march through South Carolina and took some pleasure in describing how “old massa run off and stay in de woods.”  In the interview Ezell gave the words to “…a funny song us made up ‘bout his runnin’ off in de woods.”

White folks, have you seed old massa
Up de road, with he mustache on?
He pick up he hat and he leave real sudden
And I ‘lieve he’s up and gone.

Old massa run away
And us darkies stay at home.
It mus’ be now dat Kingdom’s comin’
And de year of Jubilee.

He look up de river and he seed dat smoke
Where de Lincoln gunboats lay.
He big ‘nuff and he old ‘nuff and he orter know better,
But he gone and run away.
Not dat overseer want to give trouble
And trot us ‘round a spell,
But we lock him up in de smokehouse cellar,
With de key done throwed in de well.

From “Ex-slave stories (Texas),” images 28-29

  • From Katie Rowe’s account, what hope did enslaved people have of gaining their freedom once Union forces arrived?
  • What does the song recounted by Lorenza Ezell reveal about Sherman’s march through South Carolina? What features of the song tell you it is told from the perspective of the slaves?
  • List ways in which the Civil War affected the lives of enslaved people in the South. What emotions do you think the slaves felt as a result of these experiences? What emotions do you think they experienced when they heard they had been given their freedom? Conduct research within the collection to determine whether your hypothesis is correct.