Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Small Taste of Freedom

Service Record of Pvt. Alfred Dandridge, 2nd US Colored Lt Artillery

It is understood how service in the Union Army during the American Civil War brought about a change in the lives of many who were once enslaved.  For them, the chains of slavery would be broken, and for the first time they would be seen and treated as men. For many, like the man whose name appears above, the experience would be brief, for they had entered a mighty war, and so many lost their lives paying the ultimate price for the right of freedom.  The only comforting thought is that these men tasted a small bit of freedom, and breathed free air, only briefly before they died.

But we have to look at all of the pieces of data to tell some of their stories, even when their stories appear to be brief, and without detail. Their stories are long gone, and most descendants have no idea that their ancestors had fought for their freedom.  

Can their stories be found? 
And can some elements of a story be extracted from the many factual records left behind?

Before enlistment for those who had been enslaved, the only time the soldier's name appeared in print was in an estate record or tax record, naming them as property. So the service records of the US Colored Troops, are more than mere pieces of data of unknown men.  They  provide clues to some aspects of the lives of those who were not only soldiers for the first time--- but they were also novices to freedom and how sweet the air they breathed breathed must have been.

In the case of Alfred Dandridge, he was a  young man of 19, and for a man who had probably been a laborer since childhood, he could be considered in the middle of his life.  Beyond the years of being a toddler, he would have carried water, to the field slaves, and been a carrier of items for adults until his body was old enough to perform labor.  

But there is another strong detail about Dandridge's life that is worth noting.  He was mustered in at Ft. Monroe.  Significant? Oh yes!!!  Virginia was the heart of the Confederacy and most of Virginia was Confederate, but Ft. Monroe remained in Union hands. 

This is significant, because for many of the enslaved in Virginia---Ft. Monroe was a destination and it provided sanctuary for those fleeing to freedom. Refugee slaves had been declared "contrabands" of war, and if they could simply make it to the fort---they would find freedom.

The taking in of slaves as contraband, provided much needed manpower for the Union Army as well, when the Bureau of the US Colored Troops was established.  

This political cartoon reflects the taking in of slaves as "contrabands."

Those slaves arriving at places like Ft. Monroe, were put to work, and many of the men enlisted in the Union Army to fight.
Stampede of Slaves to Ft. Monroe, shown in Harper's Weekly, 1861

Looking more closely at Alfred Dandridge's service record, one can see something important:

Alfred Dandridge mustered in, at Ft. Monroe

Dandridge enlisted at Ft. Monroe, and there is a very strong possibility that he had been among the man contrabands of war.  He made it to Ft. Monroe!

The significance of this man's simple life, is that we know his name.  Even contrabands, is used as a term describing countless slaves, seeking freedom, and so few of their stories are actually known, and even less are their names!

We can construct a few details about his life. This young man, a laborer from the fields of York County, made  it to Ft. Monroe and enlisted in the 2nd US Colored Lt. Artillery in January 1864. He remained at Ft. Monroe, until the unit was moved in April of that year where the men in his unit joined Gen. Butler's campaign against Petersburg and Richmond.  His unit saw action at Wilson's Wharf, as well as at  Petersburg.  They remained in that are until July 7, when they were ordered to Portsmouth. The soldiers remained at Portsmouth until spring of 1865, after the surrender when they were sent to Brownsville Texas in May 1865.  They served along the Rio Grande during that time.  In the fall of 1865, Pvt. Dandridge became ill and suffered dysentery.  He did not recover from his illness and on November 2, 1865,  he expired. His unit remained in Texas until May 1866.  Pvt. Dandridge found freedom, served honorably as a soldier, fought in battles for that freedom and died a free man!

Alfred Dandridge died Nov. 2, 1865

But----we know his name, and he did not die in vain!  And I am thankful for the small taste of freedom that he was able to have. To him and countless others, who served and died, I am grateful.  Continue your well earned rest, Alfred Dandridge!  You were an honorable man.


  1. Thanks for your blog. I have found it personally useful and I'm recommending it on my blog Family History Writing ( with an "ancestor approved" award. You can use the image if you would like to and write your own list of 10 blogs you like as well as publish a list of 10 things that have humbled, enlightened or surprised you.

  2. Thank you so very much for the honor!!! I am humbled by your award.

  3. Angela, I love the title of this piece.