The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

A Yankee in Virginia, 1864

The MHS recently acquired a fascinating manuscript volume by Lt. Henry L. Estabrooks of the 26th Massachusetts Infantry describing his six weeks as a fugitive in Virginia during the Civil War. Estabrooks was captured by the Confederate Army in September 1864, but escaped from a transport train and made his way back to Union lines with the help of a number of slaves and free blacks along the way. These men, women, and children not only hid Estabrooks—at great risk to themselves—from plantation owners and Confederate soldiers, but also gave him food, shelter, clothing, and comfort.

There are too many terrific passages to quote, but here’s what Estabrooks wrote on 17 October 1864.

When it came dark a negro came in and told me to come out to one of the cabins, it was a real neat pleasant one. The old woman looked, dressed, and spoke very much like a nice old quaker lady. Her son was a great jovial fellow of about 20 yrs. He had a spelling book and I, judging from his actions that he wished to make a display of his learning, took the book which opened of itself at the page commencing with “Baker.” He knew the whole page when I asked him the words in regular succession but failed a few times when I skipped about. He was as black as a coal but there was something real good and noble about him.

The next day, he saw something very different on another plantation.

He led me into a squalid cabin where half a dozen wretched looking negroes were crouching over a fire. They were very poorly clad and degraded looking, by far the worst looking negroes I saw in the South. They said their master’s name was Skipper, and that he was a very hard one. […] The negroes were not allowed to leave the island. One young fellow lay on the floor, sick, from the effects of a severe whipping which he had received for going to Clarksville the past Sunday. He showed me his back, still raw from the cuts of the lash. I was too weary to notice much and what I do remember of that night seems like some heavy night mare.

Estabrooks’ account was written shortly after his return home to Dorchester, Mass., then published in 1866 as Adrift in Dixie; or, a Yankee Officer Among the Rebels. 

The man responsible for shepherding the manuscript to publication was Northern abolitionist James Roberts Gilmore, who wrote under the nom de plume Edmund Kirke. According to the introduction to Adrift in Dixie, Estabrooks’ brother brought the story to Gilmore and said it demonstrated “how faithful and kind the Southern negroes were. […] We owe my brother’s life to the negroes.” Gilmore insisted on its publication, arguing that it would prove to readers that black Americans deserved not only freedom, but suffrage.

There are two things in particular that make this volume so fascinating. First, Estabrooks’ original account was revised for publication, probably by Gilmore, and the original text has never been in print. These revisions included not just editorial changes, but also pseudonyms. Many of the names of slaves, free blacks, and white Southerners were changed or removed entirely. For example, here’s how one passage reads in the published version.

Entering [the house], I saw several men; and the sight of one of them made me for the moment think I was betrayed. I turned to fight my way out: but the kindly, amused looks of the negroes re-assured me; and, as I hesitated, the man in question—who was as white as I am, and dressed in a Confederate uniform—took off his hat, and bade me good-evening in a manner which at once satisfied me that he was a slave. A poor white he certainly was not; he was too well-bred and good-looking for one of that class: […] he was the son of the deceased planter by a quadroon house-servant.

But Estabrooks’ original, unrevised manuscript identifies the planter by name.

On entering I saw several men, at sight of one of whom I thought I was betrayed, and turned to fight my way out, but the kindly, amused looks of the negroes stopped me and as I hesitated, the man in question who was dressed very much like some of the Confederate soldiers and who was as white as myself, took off his hat and bade me good evening in a manner which at once assured me he must be a slave. A poor white he certainly was not, he was too well bred and good looking for one of them. […] He was the son of the defunct Bragsley by a quadroon house servant.

Last but definitely not least, Estabrooks was a talented amateur artist, and his manuscript includes six pencil illustrations of scenes in the story. None of these illustrations has been published. Here is Estabrooks’ drawing of his initial escape from the prisoner transport train. You can see him crouching behind a bush in the foreground.

And this drawing shows two young black men who, after guiding Estabrooks to the Dan River, prayed for him on the bank as he rowed away.

Henry L. Estabrooks dedicated this volume to his wife Minnie. He died in 1919 at the age of 77.

permalink | Published: Friday, 5 October, 2018, 1:00 AM