Posted by: Aaron Lisec | January 8, 2013

The Emancipation Proclamation at 150: Narratives of Soldiers and Former Slaves


Melissa Barden, Ohio, Age Over 80. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

SCRC is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) with an exhibit that highlights narratives of three former slaves from neighboring states as well as excerpts from two southern Illinois soldiers discussing slavery.

Lucy Davis lived at 319 S. Frederick Street in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when the Federal Writer’s Project interviewed her sometime between 1936 and 1938.  Her narrative, held in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress, was rendered in the syntax and orthography of “Negro dialect” so commonplace at the time and so offensive to modern readers.  Lucy remembered the war as a little girl enslaved by a Cape Girardeau family.  “When de sojers was round de neighborhood dey’d allus have me playing’ round de front gate so I cud tell em when dey’s comin’ up the road.  Den dey goes an’ hides ‘fore de sojers gits dar.  Dey all skeer’d o’ de sojers.  I’s skeerd too but dey say sojers won’t bother little black gal.”  Lucy also recalled her emancipation. “When de war wuz over Ole Massa Joe came in an’ he say, ‘Rose, you all aint slaves no mo’–You is all free as I is.’  Den you should a heard my mammy shout!  You never heard sich shoutin’ in all yo’ bahn days.”  As slaves in a border state, Lucy and her mother had to wait for the end of the war for their freedom–two years and four months longer than slaves in Union-held parts of neighboring Arkansas or Tennessee, less than a hundred miles down the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau.


Peter Dunn, Indiana. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Another Cape Girardeau resident, James Monroe Abbot, lived in the late 1930s in an alley a half block north of the A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church.  James too remembered emancipation.  “Wen de war wuz over dey didden want us to know bout it.  Dey want to keep us es long es they could.  But it cum out in de papers dat de Guvment men wuz gonna cum round an’ see so dey had tuh turn us loose.”

Charles Graham, interviewed in Little Rock, was born in Clarksville, Tennessee on September 27, 1859. “The first clear thing I remember was when everybody was rejoicing because they were free.  The soldiers were playing and boxing and chucking watermelons at one another.  They had great long guns called muskets.  I heard ’em say that Abraham Lincoln had turned ’em loose.  Where I was at, they turned ’em loose in ’63.  Lincoln was assassinated in ’65.  I heard that the morning after it was done.  We was turned loose long before then.  I was too young to pay much attention, but they were cutting up and clapping their hands and carrying on something terrible, and shouting, ‘Free, free, old Abraham done turned us loose.'”


Edwin Loosley in the Murphysboro (Illinois) Independent, September 1893.

SCRC’s own holdings include two commentaries on slavery from southern Illinois soldiers.  Edwin Loosley, born in 1835 in England, a baker before the war, served as cook in the 81st Illinois.  Stationed in Cairo in September 1862, training to be a soldier, Loosley wrote to his wife Anne after bathing at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  “I went to where the 2 rivers meet, to the extreme point of free soil, in the country/on one side was Kentucky and on the other lay Missouri, both slave states, and both protectors of the institution that has already cost so much bloodshed and misery, and unhappiness, and has broken up so many firesides among which is our own, and I could not help but regarding the war as but a great punishment for the great sin that has been committed for so many years, and I think the punishment is but just, though the innocent might suffer with the guilty.  The Mississippi was thick the waters dark, muddy, and troublous, and stormy just how the times are now.  The Ohio was clear, calm and placid like a beautiful lake or mirror, and it reminded me of how the times used to be and how they will be again/one seemed to be the emblem of peace and the other of war.”  Loosley later saw heavy combat in the Vicksburg campaign, and a future post (and exhibit) will showcase his vivid descriptions of battle in long letters home to Anne.


Excerpt from March 30, 1862 letter from Amos to Emily Sanford. VFM 1951, SCRC.

Born in Ohio in 1836, Amos Sanford settled in Illinois and practiced law before joining the 55th Illinois.  A week before he fought in the battle of Shiloh, he wrote his wife Emily from Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee.  “About a mile from here I saw a negro woman ploughing with one old horse, & a small one horse plough.  She just skimmed the ground, & didn’t plough more than 2 inches & yet it is as good as the soil will bear…. But the old negro woman has been to work in this way for the last week and where do you think her master keeps himself, why he sits in the manse & talks to the soldiers that come up to his door & when he gets tired of sitting up he lays down on the bed.  He has a wife & several children and this poor old negro woman works & earns enough for the whole family.  Poor Woman! when will the day come when these poor people will be allowed to call their souls their own?  I felt like giving the lazy master a good kicking and setting him to work.  The lazy trifling scamp!  The house he lives in is no better than the one we lived in the Summer of 1851 on the Prairie & yet this man has not ambition enough to even daub it up with mud.  You can’t have any Idea what a set of ignoramusses the people down here.  All of them wear butternut clothes & are too lazy to do anything except raise “Secesh” soldiers & cotton‑‑and Slavery is the great cause of all of it.”

“The Emancipation Proclamation at 150” is on display Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 4:30, in the Hall of Presidents, Morris Library.



  1. […] noted in an earlier post, “The Emancipation Proclamation at 150,” Loosley and the 81st saw heavy combat in a series of battles leading up to the surrender of […]

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