Historic letter uncovers heroic rescue by Civil War soldier

Published 11:09 am Tuesday, February 6, 2024

By Clark Curtis For the Washington Daily News

In a letter dated August 30, 1862, from a Union officer stationed in Washington, to his wife Sallie, he revealed his heroic act to rescue an enslaved woman who was fleeing from her captors. The several page letter was recently discovered by Brown Library historian, Stephen Farrell. In it, the officer spoke of life in Washington during the war for himself and others who were so far away from home. It also included his heartfelt account of the incident which occurred along the Bridge Street bridge. 

“I must tell you a little adventure I had this morning,” said the Union officer to his wife Sallie. “Yesterday I was officer of the day, and this morning, about daylight one of the pickets came to me from the bridge across the Tar and informed me that a female contraband was on the other side of the draw begging to be delivered from her pursuers at the other end of the bridge. When I arrived at the bridge I found a white man there who was after the woman to return her to her owner. On ascertaining that the womans’ owner and the man after her had refused to take the oath for allegiance, (to the Federal government) I told him he could not have her, and I admitted her to the city. She then informed me that there was another man across the river with a double-barreled gun. So I took two men and went after him, who as soon as he saw us coming, ran away and hid himself in a dense swamp. But as he had no time to run far, we went in after him, and after a few minutes search, found him with two double-barreled guns loaded with buckshot. He is now locked up and the guns are in my room. But I’m afraid as soon as Colonel Potter returns I shall have to give them up.”

The Union officer went on to share his disdain for the leniency his commanding officer was showing for the man he and his troops had captured.

“He (Colonel Potter) is very lenient indeed with the inhabitants about here. Since I commenced this I have been informed that this fellows’ wife came over for him, that he has taken the oath of allegiance, and has been released. The guns are still in my possession, but how long they remain so remains to be seen.”

Farrell pointed out that letters such as this are an integral part of and an asset to Washingtons’ history. “It is an amazing story,” said Farrell. “The letter sheds light on the personal opinions of this Union officer on the overall mission of the Federals, their goals, and what they were fighting for. Some fought for the Union, some for glory, and in this officers’ case, a greater cause in which he saved this woman from her slave catchers. These are the little intricacies that may often remain unknown through historical accounts, if not for letters such as this.”

Farrell went on to add the importance of  sharing stories such as this during African American History Month. “It shows the length that these Federal troops went to to protect and preserve this enslaved woman’s life,” said Farrell. “It really shines a light on the humanity of these individuals during an inhumane war.”

In recognition of Black History Month, Clark Curtis will be taking a closer look at some of the people, places, and events that have helped mold the story of Washingtons’ deep, rich, history.