One of the problems in properly commemorating slave emancipation for the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is the relative lack of black voices, especially slaves. This is particularly true of contemporaneous voices. That is, the words of African Americans from the time of the Civil War itself. Certainly, many former slaves later shared their stories with the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, in autobiographies, and other places, such as Civil War pension file testimony (please forgive the self promotion). These sources, while valuable, are dogged by fading memories, colored by subsequent events, and reshaped by the agendas of the people relating them. Hence, while by no means perfect, contemporary black voices of the Civil War have a greater reliability than later sources.
Yet the words of slaves from the time of the Civil War itself are exceedingly rare. First, only a small part of the slave population was literate, probably less than 10 percent. Slaveholders believed literacy made slaves discontented with their condition and state law in the South generally prohibited educating slaves. Second, even if slaves could write, it was rare that their words were preserved. Those that survived usually did so because they some how came into the hands of the federal government.
Such was the case of a letter written 150 years ago today by a liberated slave named John Boston. On January 12, 1862, Boston put pen to paper to let his wife in Maryland know he had escaped successfully and found refuge with a New York regiment then encamped in Virginia. The letter was some how intercepted and made its way via a committee of the Maryland legislature, handling the interests of loyal slaveholders in the state, to Union Army commander, George McClellan, and from him to the U.S. War Department. From the War Department, it eventually was deposited with other federal papers at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where it was discovered eventually by researchers of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland. It is from their website that the text of Boston’s letter is taken, which follows. It is a powerful testimony not only of the preciousness of freedom to the slaves, but also the importance of family in the 19th-century slave community.
My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take this time to let you know Whare I am i am now in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day i can Adress you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare fredom Will rain in spite Of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from al the Slavers Lash and as you have chose the Wise plan Of Serving the lord i hope you Will pray Much and i Will try by the help of god To Serv him With all my hart I am With a very nice man and have All that hart Can Wish But My Dear I Cant express my grate desire that i Have to See you i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes Dear Elizabeth tell Mrs Own[ees] That i trust that She Will Continue Her kindness to you and that god Will Bless her on earth and Save her In grate eternity My Acomplements To Mrs Owens and her Children may They Prosper through life I never Shall forgit her kindness to me Dear Wife i must Close rest yourself Contented i am free i Want you to rite To me Soon as you Can Without Delay Direct your letter to the 14th Reigment New york State malitia Uptons Hill Virginea In Care of Mr Cranford Comary Write my Dear Soon As you C Your Affectionate Husban Kiss Daniel For me