Selling Slaves in “Grant’s Petersburg Progress”?

Four weeks into my undergraduate research seminar at the American Antiquarian Society and things could not be going better. I am lucky to have an incredibly thoughtful group of students. Today we discussed the first half of James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War with two students leading the seminar. We took apart McPherson’s argument, the organization of the individual chapters and also compared it with the argument made in Gary Gallagher’s The Union War, which we discussed last week.

For the second hour we worked with curator Vincent Golden on Civil War newspapers, specifically Union regimental/camp newspapers. The AAS has an impressive collection from throughout the war and includes substantial runs of individual titles. I remember seeing them referenced in Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, but I believe she is the exception among Civil War historians. My hope is that at least one student will make use of these newspapers for the final research paper.

I spent a few minutes going through an issue of “Grant’s Petersburg Progress” dated April 4, 1865. In the bottom corner is what appears to be an advertisement for a slave sale, which given the date and the source would seem very odd. A closer look reveals a clever attempt at humor just five days before Lee’s surrender.

Next week we will finish McPherson and then move on to Drew G. Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Students will also spend this week familiarizing themselves with manuscripts in the form of a scavenger hunt that involves searching the letters of Civil War soldiers. I am curious as to how they will fair with nineteenth century handwriting. We shall see.

So far, this experience has been a blast.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

9 comments… add one
  • Bob Huddleston Oct 1, 2015 @ 13:17

    Here are a couple of items from the Papers of US Grant which might interest your students. If the formatting is imperfect and you are interested I will resend them as attachments. Burnett was one of those in whom hope sprang eternal that the Confederacy would win1

    1866, Jan. 12. Henry C. Burnett, Washington, D. C, to USG. “While I was South, and in the State of Virginia, I purchased of Epperson twenty four Boxes of manufactured Tobacco, for which I paid him and received the Tobacco and left it in the custody of B. F. Dyer Esq of Henry cty Va— Some time after I left Va, Mr Epperson went to the town of Danville, and upon his exparte statement, that the consideration which I paid him had become by reason of the South having failed in the war worthless, the Provost Marshal, sent up to Henry cty, a body of Soldiers, with this man Epperson who demanded of Mr Dyer who was the custodian of the Tobacco its delivery, he refused to give it up and the soldiers then took forcible possession of it and carried it to Danville and the provost Marshal delivered the same to Epperson—I Submit, that the military authorities had no jurisdiction of the rights of citizens arising upon contracts between them; and the Courts being open in the State of Virginia, Mr Epperson had his remedy against me, and if he had been wronged, his rights could be fully adjudicated—I made this representation to the to the provost Marshal through [434] B. F. Gravely Esq of Va. and the provost Marshal, agreed that his decision had been wrong and that the Tobacco should be delivered to me; he thereupon Sent a Guard and had Mr Epperson arrested and assured my agent that he might rest assured the Tobacco should be delivered Mr Gravely went on to Baltimore informed me what had been done and thatt the provost Marshal would make Epperson Surrender the Tobacco—when Mr G returned from Baltimore, he called upon the provost Marshal, who told him he had changed his mind and left the Tobacco in the possession of—Epperson—Upon the receipt of this information from Mr Gravely I came on here, and now ask you for an Order directing the provost Marshal at Danville, directing him to have this Tobacco redelivered to me or to require Epperson to pay the market value of the same—In a word I ask that I may be put in Statu quo in regard to my property as it was at the time the military authorities took it out of my possession.”—ALS, DNA, RG 109, Union Provost Marshals’ File of Papers Relating to Two or More Civilians. Burnett, expelled as U.S. representative from Ky. in Dec, 1861, later served as C.S.A. senator from Ky. On April 6, 1865, Burnett sold four slaves to W. S. Epperson for twenty-four boxes of tobacco; Epperson later claimed that since slavery had been abolished already by the lawful (loyal) govemment of Va., the sale was invalid.—ibid.

    PUSG 433-434

    1866, Feb. 3. John Thompson, Philadelphia, to USG. “I called on You in Oct in regard to a small claim I have. You turned me & the papers over to Col. Comstock. after their examination, the Col. reported to You, & returned with an answer from You that if I would make proof feat the property in question was mine. You would give me an endorsement that would be of Service to me. I called again at Your Quarters 22nd Ult, & reported my business to Your Secty, who after Seeing You replied that nothing could be done Until after the return of Genl. Comstock. this was to me a Sore disappointment, having only left with my wife $7. for Market Money & only enough Money in my possession to pay my expenses to, at & from Washington. I however turned away believing that the government through You would be true to me, as I had been & am to it. the claim I am Now Urging is $1595. for articles Used by the Army & I have been able to procure the required proof—when the Union army was at our place as stated by Col. Richmond, I there had all my property which was of my own hard earnings, worth at the out break of the War between forty & fifty Thousand dollars out of the whole of that I was able to leave with my Son $2,000 Two Thousand Dollars In Sept last to Commence farming operations, and after having been in business for myself twenty five Years, I have to take a position as Salesman to enable me to Support a large and entirely dependent family, wife & 9 children, all dependents but my Son in Tennessee, whom I kept out of the rebel army by a determined will, having made two Unsuccessful attempts to Join them on one occasion I followed him to Newhall in Oct 1861, at which place I fortunately overtook him on his way to Join Said Army at Columbus Ky, and I again took him from there in Oct 1862, and before Your Army took possession of our Country I was taken out of my bed in the Mid hour of the Night by 30 Armed rebels & passing to rebel head quarters all to deter me from giving Utterances in favour of the Union; If the Government will now pay me the Amt I think it ought to, it will greatly facilitate me Just at this moment, more than at any other time. The $2,000 I gave my Son is Exausted, & we are now needing money to keep him agoing & I am much in want of money for my own family expenses. Genl. A J Smith’s Command destroyed my Tannery for which You gave me a Safeguard on 27th July 1864 I had removed everything from it when Genl. Sherman withdrew his troops in Jany 1864.—I refer you to enclosed Copy’s originals of which I have in my possession—I have not the Money to spare to make another trip to Washington, unless I felt Sure of Succeeding in my object. Therefore will You be Kind enough to advise me when to come … it was through my aid that Richmond got a Cannon to Davis Mill in time that enabled Lieut. Col. Morgan to make so gallant a defence, turn the rebels back. Killed 30 or 40 of them, & Saved that long tresstle-“—ALS, DNA, RG 108, Letters Received. On Feb. 8, Bvt. Col. [452] Horace Porter wrote to Thompson. “In reply to your letter of the 5th inst. I am directed by Gen. Grant to say that Gen. Comstock is now absent and will not return for three of four weeks. If at the end of that time, you will forward to this office the original certificates in your possession, the merits of your claims will be examined into, and an endorsement made upon your application in accordance with the result of the examination.”—Copy, ibid.

    PUSG 16:451-452

  • Bryce Hartranft Sep 30, 2015 @ 5:04

    Great artifact. Book a week seems like some intense reading, but it must be a magical experience to get so wrapped up in the civil war.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2015 @ 5:20

      We are reading books by James McPherson, D.G. Faust and Brian Jordan over two week periods. Each student is responsible for helping to lead the class discussion once during the semester and they must choose any two books to formally review. So far I am incredibly pleased with their performance.

  • Rob Wick Sep 30, 2015 @ 5:01


    As an old newspaperman, I can appreciate what was required in order for a regiment to produce a newspaper. Just the weight of the type and the printing press alone would have made it a major production for an army constantly on the march. A single newspaper page that has been set in type can weigh upwards of 50 to 60 pounds, plus pressmen of old didn’t have the “luxury” of having a Linotype machine to set type. Each individual letter had to be set by hand which is why most newspapers had straight lines in single columns. Thanks for sharing your experiences with this group. Sounds like they are learning a lot!


    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2015 @ 5:32

      Hi Rob,

      All important points to remember. I asked my students to think about what the effort to produce these newspapers tells us about a military culture of citizens turned soldiers. The other aspect of this is the various forms of paper that were used. The AAS has one example of a newspaper that was printed on the reverse side of wallpaper.

  • TF Smith Sep 29, 2015 @ 21:31

    Proof the Civil War wasn’t about slavery!

    It was about … um … tariffs! Yeah, that’s it!

    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2015 @ 2:38

      One of the interesting things about these newspapers is that it provides a more direct source re: what the men on the ground were thinking at different times during the war. Editorials are being written primarily for the eyes of the men in a specific unit.

      • TF Smith Sep 30, 2015 @ 18:49

        True – the ad above the “slave” one is actually pretty funny…

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