Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Soldiers Escaped and My Contrabands Freed Themselves! (Many Rivers to Cross Blogging Circle Response to Episode #3)

Service Records of My Bass Ancestors who were Taken Prisoner Then Escaped

Episode 3 of The African Americans, Many Rivers To Cross, aired last night on PBS and it was quite well done. As I watched  the segment about the involvement of the US Colored Troops, the story of my Tennessee ancestors came to mind.  I have told the story of my gr. grandfather's brother Cephas Bass many times. I also wrote an article about how I found him on my blog in 2010. His is a remarkable story where he and his brother Braxton enlisted in an Alabama regiment of Black soldiers. This regiment was later re-designated as the 111th US Colored Infantry. In addition to enlisting with his brother, Uncle Cephus also enlisted with his two sons, Henry and Emanuel.

But the story becomes unusual, because he and his brother and son were were taken prisoner in the fall of 1864. This is significant because six months earlier also in Tennessee, the massacre at Ft. Pillow of hundreds of Black soldiers took place. The series Many Rivers to Cross presented the story of the Ft. Pillow massacre quite well.

Historical Image from Harper's Weekly of the Ft. Pillow Massacre

So when I obtained records on my ancestors, what a surprise it was to learn that my ancestor Cephas Bass, his brother Braxton and his two sons were in a unit that was captured and taken prisoner six months after the Ft. Pillow massacre when confederate soldiers swore that they would "give no Negroes any quarter." But yet, here were my ancestors in the 111th US Colored Infantry, and they were captured and taken prisoner, and not killed. 

And the surprise for me, was to learn that they were captured by the same man who it is said, ordered the Ft. Pillow massacre--Nathan Bedford Forrest. 
General N.B. Forrest

This name is well known to people in Tennessee, and he was a well known General. But I learned that he not only captured the entire regiment, but my ancestors--the Bass soldiers then escaped from him!!

According to a deposition in the pension file of my ancestor Cephas Bass, Forrest pulled him and his kinsmen apart from the other soldiers, then did not guard them closely, and they "got away." They got away!!! My ancestors escaped from General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Civil War Deposition Describing the Escape from Nathan Bedford Forrest

And sure enough, the service records of each one of my ancestors indicate that they were indeed taken prisoner and later escaped.

(All images found on Fold3 among the service records of the US Colored Troops.)

Their story is a remarkable one, and after the segment on the US Colored Troops, I was compelled to share this part of the story.

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My Contraband Ancestors Freed Themselves

It is often believed that apart from the bravery and accomplishments of the US Colored Troops in the Civil War, that those left behind stayed behind and waited to be free. I was so glad to see that the story of the contrabands, the thousands of Black men and women who took advantage of being near the Union line, and as it was shown in Many Rivers to Cross, that just like the three men who began it all at Ft. Monroe, thousands of others got the word, "get to the Union Line!"

On my maternal line, in Tippah County Mississippi, there was a Union Army raid that had been sent out from Corinth, and had spread through the neighboring counties in northern Mississippi. When the soldiers arrived at Ripley, they began enlisting able bodied men to join the Union Army. My gr. gr. grandfather Berry Young was among them. He and the family had been held in bondage by William "Tandy" Young of Ripley. But with most of the men in Ripley who had left to fight in the Confederate Amry--and so the enslaved men had their chance to resist at last!! And they wasted no time in enlisting to fight for their freedom.

As the soldiers left, the women and children were left behind, but many wanted to follow the men. They would do anything to be free and away from the place that once held them from freedom's door. For my ancestors in Ripley many of the events following the raid in Ripley Mississippi, were shared in another Civil War pension file. Mary Paralee Young who was a sister to my gr. gr. grandmother Amanda, told the story of what happened.

Deposition of Mary Paralee Young, describing her escape from Ripley

What I appreciate about this story, is how there was no hesitation to leave. As she says when the men left, she left that night! There was no thought about it---she was at freedom's door and seized the opportunity. She described how they made it through the woods and when she arrived at Saulsbury Tennessee she and others were placed on a train and sent to President's Island Contraband Camp.

I think of the contrabands often and the image that they must have made. Some walking, some in wagons, and some on the back of a horse or mule if they were so fortunate. They were truly walking out on faith, and when the time came--they freed themselves with permission from no one, except their spirit to walk to the unknown.

I also can imagine the mere sight of these self-freed men, women and children. We don't envision slavery often--we forget that before emancipation, the roads were not for black people--the enslaved were bascially a controlled population, contained for decades on farms, on plantations, and in the fields. The roads were not for them to use. Their days consisted of moving from the slave cabin to the field, and back to the slave cabin. But here they were--suddenly taking to the roads.  What a startling sight it must have been to the white population. Only slaves with an approved pass were on the roads. But now here they were by the hundreds--- on the roads, and now, walking about freely in the towns. This had to shock the nation---the world for all of them had changed!

Contrabands Receiving Rations

Today we see images of refugees in foreign countries fleeing war. But 145 years ago so many of our ancestors did not flee from war. They fled to it! They walked, road and some were carried, but all took to the roads, that led to their freedom, their empowerment and their new lives!

Contraband Camp in Western Tennessee
Image: Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

The PBS series Many Rivers To Cross is walking through many time periods in the country's history, and during those critical years of the Civil War, it is essential that we also tell our own family stories during those times of war, and change as well. The Civil War and it's outcome dramatically changed the trajectory of the lives of my ancestors, as well as the direction of the nation. I am so proud to tell the story of my Mississippi ancestors who seized the moment when the time came and freed themselves.

 Although we had come so far, indeed we still had many more trials ahead. But truly by this time in the nation's history and the history of the ancestors who had come from Africa, we truly had already encountered so "many rivers to cross."
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This blog post is part of a collaboration of posts being shared by a group of bloggers who are part of the African American Genealogy Blogging Circle. We are sharing our own personal family stories, as the series air on PBS. 

The Bloggers are:

Kristing Cleage, Finding Eliza
Melvin Collier (Roots Revealed)
George Geder (Wanders, Wonders, Signs)
Terry Ligon, (Black and Red Journal)
Vicky Daviss Mitchell (Mariah's Zepher)
Yvette Porter Moore , (The Ancestors Have Spoken)
Nicka Sewell Smith (Who is Nicka Smith)                               
Drusilla Pair (Find Your Folks)
Angela Walton-Raji (My Ancestor's Name)


Terry LIGON said...

What a rich history and discovering your ancestor's were able to survive what surely would have been death at the hands of the southern general is remarkable.

Good article!

Kristin said...

I had never visualized the people taking to the roads and walking in the hundreds away from slavery. You're right, that must have been a dramatic sight.