― Francis Parkman Jr.
As a historian and writer I often feel like a miner of sorts. I am digging for information, for details and interesting stories. Most of all I am searching for eye-witness accounts. When I find some wonderful nuggets I call them the gems of my research.
One of the great finds during this recent project studying Gettysburg was a digitized copy of a long forgotten book from 1915 called (of all things) Battleground Adventures: The True Stories of Dwellers on the Scenes of Conflict in Some of the Most Notable Battles of the Civil War. That is quite a title isn't it?
Inside, however, was treasure... the author Clifton Johnson traveled around to the major battlefields of the Civil War in about 1912 or so, and interviewed residents who had witnessed the fighting. There were six interviews with people from Gettysburg. The author kept the identities of his subjects anonymous. They were identified only as, "The Carriage Maker's Boy" or "The Bank Clerk."
Two of them, however, were African Americans voices: "The Colored Farm Hand" and "The Colored Servant Maid." This was significant because, as one might suspect, there is not a lot written by African American writers of that time who were at Gettysburg in 1863. Yet both, however interesting, were too colloquial; their stories not tied to the narrative of the battle I was really after. Two of the other accounts, however, "The Bank Clerk" and "The School Teacher" both documented African Americans fleeing Gettysburg as Lee's army approached. In my mind they are some of the most valuable accounts because it was the perfect way to introduce the issue of slavery into the narrative of the new book.
African American refugees fleeing Gettysburg.
Even more interesting... one of the chapters was entitled, "The Schoolteacher." It captivated me because one of the accounts I was studying was the diary of Elizabeth Salome “Sallie” Meyers who was a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher in 1863. Could they be one and the same?
Elizabeth Salome “Sallie” Meyers
The notes of the published edition of her diary mentioned that Sally Meyers had been interviewed at her home at Gettysburg by an author about the same time Clifton Johnson was traveling around conducting his interviews. The story she relates to Johnson and her own diary entries corroborate. Yet she reveled new and interesting details about her experiences in 1863 to Johnston. One of them was this moving passage about the plight of the African Americans in Gettysburg before the battle:
Every report of raiding would set the Africans to migrating, they were so afraid they’d be carried off into slavery. They looked very ragged and forlorn, and some exaggerated their ills by pretending to be lame, for they wanted to appear as undesirable as possible to any beholder who might be tempted to take away their freedom.
The chapter entitled "The Bank Clerk" included more about African Americans fleeing Gettysburg:
...a great many refugees passed through Gettysburg going northward. Some would have a spring wagon and a horse, but usually they were on foot, burdened with bundles containing a couple of quilts, some clothing, and a few cooking utensils. . . . The farmers along the roads sheltered them nights. Most of these here poor runaways would drift into the towns and find employment, and there they’d make their future homes.
Both of these accounts made the final manuscript for the new book. I was most pleased to discover them. Gettysburg was an important waypoint on the Underground Railroad. It had a reasonably large African American population in 1863 of skilled laborers and farmers. It would have been unthinkable to write an account of Gettysburg without telling their story.
Sally Meyers was to become a real Gettysburg hero. I will write more about her in a following blog post...
Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, BN.com and Indiebound.