Photo Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
I completed reading Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves yesterday and found these 1930s recorded conversations fascinating. The Virginia Writers Project employees conducted oral history interviews with about 300 elderly former slaves to get their views on life before emancipation and since. While a number of the original interviews have been lost over time, this published collection has been available since 1976.
Fortunately, a majority of the interviews were made by African Americans, so interviewees seem to have been more candid than some of the WPA Federal Writers Project interviews conducted by white interviewers. That was the case when African Americans Emmy Wilson and Claude W. Anderson spoke with former slave Cornelius Garner in Norfolk in 1937.
Garner explained to his interviewers that he was born in 1846 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Garner said that he started working at about ten years old helping grow tobacco, wheat, corn, and oats on his owner’s plantation. He described his housing as good; that it didn’t leak, but had a dirt floor and straw beds. Garner also explained that he received plenty to eat. He said that a ration of meat and corn meal was supplied, and sometimes he received fish, molasses, and bread.
Garner does not go into an explanation of how, but in 1864 he arrived in Norfolk, Virginia. Being curious, I thought I’d see if I could corroborate his statement with any available service records.
Indeed, Garner’s records show he enlisted in Company B of the 38th United States Colored Infantry.on February 15, 1864 in Great Mill’s, Maryland. It was his army service that brought him to Norfolk, where he was officially mustered in. Garner was described as eighteen years old and five feet, five inches tall, and having a dark complexion. He is identified as being born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, as he explained to his interviewers.
Private Garner was present and accounted for with his unit until September 29, 1864, when he was wounded at New Market Heights fighting with the 38th USCT in Alonzo Draper’s brigade. Garner mentioned in his interview fighting at Deep Bottom and Chaffin’s Farm (aka New Market Heights) but did not cover the fact that he was wounded. His service records indicate that he spent time at Balfour General Hospital, a Union army hospital in Portsmouth in October and November and returned to duty on December 12.
Garner’s records indicate that he was sent back to the hospital on February 2, 1865, for an unexplained illness. His is shown as being in the general hospital at Fort Monroe from March until about September. Then he appears to have been transferred to Fort Wood in New York harbor; most likely for a trip to Texas for border duty, where the 38th was stationed until they were mustered out in 1867. Garner explained in his interview that he returned to Virginia when he left the army that very year.
In Garner’s records is an application for compensation by his former owner Ann Milburn. Milburn also supplied an affidavit of her loyalty to seek payment for Garner’s service. Garner said in his interview that his master was Lewis Milburn. Looking up Ann Milburn in the 1860 census I found that she was the 50 year old wife of farmer John L. Milburn. John Milburn owned $10,000 in personal property. Their son, seventeen year old Lewis, is shown as a “farm hand.” John L. Milburn also appears in the 1860 slave schedules as the owner of sixteen slaves, who lived in two slave dwellings. On that list of a slaves appears a fourteen year old black male, who would fit Garner’s age and description exactly.
Being able to corroborate Garner’s interview story with official documents, in my opinion lends a extra level of credence to these sometimes disregarded “memory” accounts of lives spent in slavery.