November 1863: "Slavery is dead in this state, and the masters all begin to see it."

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from Edward J. Bartlett to Martha Bartlett, 4-5 November 1863

Letter from Edward J. Bartlett to Martha Bartlett, 4-5 November 1863

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    In this letter written in November 1863 to his oldest sister Martha, Edward J. Bartlett of Concord, Massachusetts, describes his work recruiting black soldiers for the Union army. He discusses the frustrating bureaucracy complicating his work, and excitedly reports on the high numbers of potential recruits eager to leave their masters and join the Union cause.

    Edward (“Ned”) Jarvis Bartlett was born in 1842 in Concord, one of nine children of Dr. Josiah Bartlett and his wife Martha. In August of 1862, he enlisted in the 44th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a nine-month regiment. He served as a private in Company F, and saw action in North Carolina at Rawle’s Mill and Whitehall. Bartlett mustered out of service in June of 1863 and secured a civilian position recruiting black soldiers for the Union army. He worked first in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, moving to a recruiting office in Nashville, Tennessee in September of that year.

    The Bureau of Colored Troops was established in May 1863 to manage the growing number of black soldiers being recruited into the Union army in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. In June, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton offered George L. Stearns a commission as an assistant adjutant-general with the rank of major, and put him in charge of the recruitment of black soldiers on a national scale. Stearns, of Medford, Massachusetts , was an ardent abolitionist who had helped finance John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry, After setting up a successful recruitment office in Philadelphia, he was re-assigned to Nashville, where he and his office could draw recruits not only from Tennessee, but from the adjoining states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Bartlett worked for Stearns in both cities.

    In this letter Bartlett notes with satisfaction that in the course of his work he frequently observed Tennessean masters being thwarted in their attempts to secure compensation from the United States government for the recruitment of their slaves. Since the status of slaves in Tennessee had not been affected by the Emancipation Proclamation, Stearns and his office were authorized to offer $300 in compensation to masters who willingly surrendered their slaves to the Union army. He explains to his sister that some slave owners “begin to bring their slaves here … but we have the masters in one thing. They are obliged to their oath that they have never in any way aided the rebellion. There is hardly one that can take that oath for if they are not rebels now they have been.” Bartlett expresses pleasure that “I have not given one [compensation] yet for I cannot find the man that can take the oath at the top. I like that!” (page 3).

    In other letters in this collection, Bartlett articulates his concern for the welfare of the families of the newly recruited black soldiers, noting that there was a dearth of places to relocate them, as well as a total lack of financial resources to supply them with basic essentials. He describes how he walked down the street accompanied by several wives and children carrying their few worldly goods on their heads “looking for a better land to wait for their husbands who were fighting for their freedom.” Bartlett mentions to his sister that one of the ideas being discussed by Union officials in Nashville was to place all these displaced families on some large confiscated plantation and allow them to support themselves through agriculture and the compensation their husbands received for their service in the army.

    Bartlett left Nashville and his work for the Bureau of Colored Troops in the spring of 1864. He worked for a short time with the United States Sanitary Commission, before accepting a commission as a lieutenant in Company E of the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, a unit comprised of black enlisted men and white officers. At the close of the Civil War, the men of the 5th Cavalry, including Bartlett, were transferred to Texas, where they helped to secure the United States border during the French intervention in Mexico.

    Bartlett mustered out of the military on 31 October 1865. He returned home to Concord and in 1873 married Sarah Flagg French of New Hampshire. The couple had two children, Mary and William Bradford Bartlett. Edward Jarvis Bartlett died in 1914.

    Sources for Further Reading:

    The featured document is one of dozens of letters Edward J. Bartlett wrote to his sister Martha Bartlett during the course of his involvement in various civilian and military activities during the Civil War. These serial letters, kept in the form of a journal, are part of the Edward J. Bartlett Letters, held by the MHS. Although there are several substantial gaps in the collection, the letters shed light on his activities as a soldier in the 44th Massachusetts and the 5th Cavalry, as well the months he spent with the Bureau of Colored Troops and the Sanitary Commission.

    Dobak, William A. Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862-1867. Washington, D.C.: Center for Military History, 2011.

    Heller, Charles E. Portrait of an Abolitionist: A Biography of George Luther Stearns, 1809-1867. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

    Stearns, Frank Preston. The Life and Public Services of George Luther Stearns. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1905.

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