This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.
Just as the experiences of African American soldiers during the Civil War went under-recorded and underrepresented, so too did the hardships suffered by their wives and children behind the lines.
This letter, from Lucinda Lawrence to her husband, Private Canny Lawrence of the 35th USCT, details what early emancipation was like for the families of USCT soldiers. Writing from Union-held territory in North Carolina in the very last days of the war, one could expect Lucinda to report improving conditions and hope for better times ahead. Instead, she wrote in desperation to her husband that she was no longer able to draw rations for herself without written proof of his military service. Until she could show that proof, the commanding officer of the camp would only provide food for their child.
New Berne April 1st 1865
My dear Husband,
It is a very long time since I heard from you, and I feel very anxious, if you would only direct care of Miss Pearson, I should be sure to get the letters. I want you to send what Co. you belong to, and tell me how you are. I am well so is Alice she seems to be getting along in school right well. I wish you would send me some money, for I can’t get rations. They only feed the child now.
Sister is with me yet, and is very well. I have waited to get an answer from you, and it is so long. I had to write to you.
I got a letter from brother Jo. He is well, I have only heard from Austin once. He was very well then. Write me soon.
Now I want you to send me a paper from your Capt stating what Co. you are in etc, then I can draw rations. I should like to draw wood.
Your loving Wife
Lucinda’s experience as a “contraband” was not atypical. Contraband camps were fraught with problems, beyond the lack of food described in Lucinda’s letter. As Union armies advanced through the South, thousands of slaves flocked to their lines in order to escape bondage. The result was a vast humanitarian crisis, as the Union Army and civilian aid groups struggled to provide sufficient rations, shelter, sanitation, and other basic necessities to camp residents. Virtually everything was in short supply, and few quartermasters considered the welfare of contrabands to be their top priority; most resented the contrabands as a drain on important military resources.
Despite Lucinda’s main purpose in writing her desperate letter, she also hinted at the more positive aspects of life in the contraband camps. She mentioned that Alice—most likely her daughter—was attending school and doing well. The opportunity for the children of the formerly enslaved to openly attend school had been unthinkable just a couple of years before. In addition to education, the camps provided these men and women the chance to earn wages as laborers, laundresses, and hospital workers for the Union Army. This newfound opportunity proved to be the first steps in helping former slaves begin new lives as free members of society.