The Union Army in which my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull served was much more than a fighting force. It was a symbol of freedom and a tangible safe haven for emancipated African Americans and anti-slavery non-combatants who were fleeing the Confederates.
During the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, many civilians were evacuated north to safety by Union troops. My great, great grandfather — part of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — likely experienced the social impact of the federal army while he was on duty in the Valley.
On 2 Oct. 1864 when his unit was stationed in Harrisonburg, Va., one of Arthur’s fellow soldiers — Sgt. William Thistleton — wrote in his diary about the arrival of a train from the front “laden” with religious pacifists and freed African Americans.
[T]he majority of the former were of a set called “Dunkers” a species of the Quaker persuasion some of them had been living in the hills and woods for a month past hiding from the relentless conscription of the Davis government.
The German Baptist Brethren — known as Dunkers for their full-immersion baptisms — opposed slavery and refused military service. Now that Civil War combat had come to the Valley, they were moving out of harm’s way.
Sgt. Thistleton also wrote about the determination of the emancipated African Americans to go north.
[T]heir soul [sic] aim and object seemed to be to escaped [sic] from the rebels dominion…and considered the Potomac river their “Jordan’s” [sic] and the country north of it their Promised land.
As the Civil War progressed, hundreds of thousands of African American workers left the slaveholders’ plantations, workshops, kitchens and nurseries in what W.E.B. Du Bois characterized as a “general strike” — many joining the Union Army if they were able to (more than 100,000 altogether by the end of the war) or seeking its protection if they were not.
These particular migrants had passed through the Shenandoah Valley where the Union Army was destroying the Confederate breadbasket, wrote Sgt. Thistleton.
[T]he Cavalry were engaged to day in burning all of the barns, granaries and stacks they could find the men were allowed to forage and we fared very well every day.
The Burning took a heavy toll on the Valley in October 1864. But in the process of clearing slavery’s defenders from the land, the Union Army’s purifying fire — much like a naturally-occurring conflagration — left fertile space in its wake, opening the way for new post-war social, political and economic growth.
© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.
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