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I've had the pleasure of reading William Dobak's forthcoming book, Freedom By The Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862-1867. Here's an anecdote I came across just yesterday. The story is rendered by Dobak, who's quoting from the memories of Captain James S. Rogers. Some of the earliest colored regiments were formed in South Carolina out on the Sea Islands. Rogers was an officer in one of those regiments. We pick up the story in Jacksonville, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation:

The presence of black soldiers infuriated the city's slaveholders. Captain Rogers met one of them when a soldier in his company told him that a Jacksonville resident owned one of the soldier's daughters, "and he would like to get her if possible. I had him pilot me to the house," Rogers wrote: "The lady was at home and before I had a chance to state my mission she said: 'I know what you are after, you dirty Yank. You are after that nigger's girl. Well, she is safe beyond the lines where you can't get her. I expected you Yanks would want to steal her so I sent her off yesterday. You are too late.'" 

Rogers tried to explain the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation to the woman. "'Well, you'll have to fight your way out there before you can get that wench,' she said. 'Is this your child?' I said as a flaxen haired boy came toward me. 'Yes, he is, and what of it?'" Rogers told one of his soldiers to take the boy to the guard house and keep him there until the girl returned. The soldier "looked at me with a half frightened, half questioning expression on his black face, but when he saw I was in earnest his look changed to one of triumph, and grasping the little fellow by the arm he started off for the guard house before either mother or child could recover from their surprise. Then the 'lady' gave me a volley of abuse which I will not repeat, nor did I stop to hear the end of the tirade. 

Finding she could get no satisfaction from the colonel she was advised to hunt up the provost marshal and get a pass [to go beyond Union lines]. Imagine her chagrin and disgust when she found I was the man she was seeking. She asked for the pass. I did not ask her what for, nor did I pretend to know her. She got it and also an escort of four of my best looking 'nasty niggers' dressed in their best." The next day the woman returned, bringing with her the soldier's daughter. "The soldier's heart was made glad, the white child was exchanged for the black one, and with another blast at the nasty Yankees the haughty 'lady' returned to her home."

It is good of us to reflect on all of those who gave their lives for freedom and democracy and all the values we hold dear. It's also good of us to reflect on those who died for something more elemental--the right of family. 

Happy Memorial Day, folks.

*Image is of William Carney, who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad to Massachusetts. Carney returned to the South in the Union Army, as one of the 54th.During the assault on Battery Wagner, Carney charged the works with his regiment, planted the American flag on the parapet--while wounded--and then carried it back during the retreat. Carney received the Medal of Honor 40 years later.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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