Monday, April 20, 2015

A Heartrending Letter from Freedman’s Village

Every once in a while in my research I find something that transcends the usual dry recitation of facts and events – something that leaps off of the page and eradicates the 150 year barrier that separates me from the people and events I am investigating.

A recent find that falls into that category is a letter housed in the collection of the Library of Georgia from a woman named Ann Butler who lived in Arlington’s Freedman’s Village.

Freedman's Village. Courtesy: LOC
The letter is unique in several respects. First of all, most of the primary source documents pertaining to the newly freed African Americans residing in Freedman’s Village were written by whites who worked in the village – teachers, administrators, soldiers, and missionaries. Any firsthand account from one of the actual residents is a rare find.

Second, the letter is written to her husband William, who was serving as a soldier in the 2nd United States Colored Infantry. The 2nd USCT was a unit recruited straight out of Arlington, which means we have a situation where a family comes into Freedman’s Village and the wife and children stay in the village to work and learn while the husband enlists in the U.S. Colored Troops. Again, this is a rare scenario to find any primary documents for.

Finally, as we will see, there is a surprise ending.

And now for the text of the letter itself – the following is a transcription of the original, which was written on January 30, 1865:
Jan 30 1865
Arlington Va
Freedmens Village
My dear Husband, 
I have waited and longed and longed and waited for a letter from you but seems all in vain why don’t you write to me and let me some thing from you. Not since October last have I heard one word from you is any thing the matter with you do write and let me know to relieve my anxious mind the children are all anxious to see you and hear from you William is living not very far from me he is waiting on an officer at Fort Woodbury and Matthew is waiting on an officer at fort smith near about 2 or 3 miles off, but I see him very often which is a great comfort to me as I cannot see you but I hope the time is not far off when I shall once more both see you and be separated no more until death which is unresistable while we see each other let us pray that harm may not overtake I feel it my especial duty and greatest comfort to pray for you at all times you must pray for me and the children Mary is living in Washington. She and all the rest send their best love to you their dear absent father. Now William when you receive this make no delay in writing but hast to answer this at once and tell me every[thing] concerning yourself and your where abouts. The smaller children go to school in the village every day they want to see how much they can learn by the time their Father come with spoils from the war. I will say no more not but will trust in the Lord for the safe keeping of us both and our little flock.
I remain as ever your devoted wife,
C. Ann Butler
Direct your letters as before Freedmens Village
Care Capt Larrs
Arlington Va

The immediacy of Butler’s living situation and obvious concern over her beloved husband leaps off of the page, and makes what follows next truly heartrending.

At the bottom of the letter is a note written in a different hand that reads in part:
This letter was taken out of a knapsack found close by a dead body on the Battlefield of the Natural Bridge near St Marks Fla March 6th 1865 … It is believed the Butler above named was killed at that fight.
One can only imagine the grief experienced by Ann and her children when that news was delivered to her.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending!

I recently looked at William Butler’s service record and, as it turns out, he was captured at the Battle of Natural Bridge – which explains why his knapsack was left on the field of battle.

William Butler's Parole. Courtesy: NARA
The end of the war brought about William’s release as a P.O.W. on April 28, 1865 and he was discharged from the army on May 20th at Annapolis, Maryland.

It must have been a joyful occasion when William, Ann, and their small children were reunited.

1 comment:

  1. As I said an great USCT historian. Barb Gannon