From the Boston Liberator, 4/21/1865, p. 64, c. 3
MATTERS IN RICHMOND.
RICHMOND, April 5.
To the Editor of the Boston Journal:
The Richmond Whig was issued yesterday afternoon as a loyal paper. The editor and all who have heretofore controlled its columns fled on Sunday night. The proprietor and one attache of the editorial corps remain. They have taken the oath of allegiance. The issue of last night says: “The Whig will be issued hereafter as a Union paper. The sentiment of attachment to our whole country, which formerly characterized it as a journal, will again find expression in its columns, and whatever influence it may have for the restoration of the national authority will be exerted.”
The Sentinel office was not destroyed. I saw the proprietor today. He formerly did the government printing. We had a pleasant interview.
“I was sorry,” he said, “to see the Stars and Stripes torn down in 1861. It is the prettiest flag in the world; but I shed tears when I saw it raised over the Capitol of Virginia on Sunday morning.
“Why so?” I asked.
“Because it was done without the consent of the State of Virginia.”
“Then you still cling to the idea that a State is more than the nation.”
“Yes. State rights above everything.”
“Don’t you think the war is almost over – that it is useless for Lee to contend further?”
“No. He will fight another battle, and he will win. He can fight for twenty-five years in the mountains.”
“Do you think that men can live in the mountains?”
“Yes; on roots and herbs, and fight you till you are weary of it, and whip you out.”
I give you the conversation as near as I can recall it, that you may understand the insanity of the secessionists. They have no conception of the great principles which underlie this mighty struggle. They are clinging to the abstractions of the past – State rights, State sovereignty – and are impelled by State pride. They talk of the proud Old Dominion, the State which has raised up Presidents – of their ancestors and all that – liing in the past, without comprehending the revolution of the present, which has precipitated them from power, and which has brought liberty to a despised race.
A friend called upon one of the most aristocratic families of the place last night – a family which has had a great name. He found them exceedingly bitter and defiant. They never would yield. No – never. They would fight through a generation, and defeat us at last.
There are many people in Richmond who are glad to see the old flag here once more; they love the Union, they say, but cannot bear to “see a nigger parading about the streets.” And this brings me to the subject of
I have taken especial pains to ascertain the truth about negro troops in the rebel service. A great meeting was held in the African church some weeks ago to fire the African heart. The church was crowded with colored people. The newspapers since then have made frequent mention of the volunteering of colored men, and the public have been made to believe that several regiments were being enlisted. I have the testimony of a dozen men, white and colored, that the entire number did not exceed fifty! and these were boys, who were ready to parade the streets, and live on Confederate rations, but who had no idea of fighting. “Dey was mostly poor Souf Carolina darkies – poor heathen fellers, who didn’t know no better,” said one negro, in response to my inquiries.
“Would you have fought against the Yankees?” I asked a colored man dressed in butternut colored cloths, who stood near by.
“No sir. Dey might have shot me through de body wid ninety thousand balls, before I would have fired a gun at my friends.”
“Then you look upon us as your friends?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve prayed for you to come to get for a long while, and do you think that I would have prayed one way and fit the other?”
He said it with spirit, as if a little hurt that I should question his sincerity.
“I’ll tell you, Massa, what I would have done,” said another, taking off his hat and bowing; “I would have taken de gun and when I cotched a chance, I’d a shooted it at de rebs and den run for de Yankees.”
This brought a general explosion from the crowd, and arrested the attention of some white men passing.
I look back with pleasure to the scene. It was in the street directly west of the Capitol – the dilapidated building with decaying walls and broken windows. I had but to raise my eyes to see the Stars and Stripes waving in the evening breeze. A few paces distant were the ruins of the rebel war department, from whence were issued the orders to starve our prisoners at Belle Isle, Salisbury and Andersonville. Near by were the walls of Dr. Reed’s church, where a specious gospel had been preached. A stone’s throw in the other direction was Dr. Hayes’s church, where Jeff. Davis’s heart quailed on Sunday last. The street was full of people. I was a stranger to them all, but I ventured to make this inquiry:
“Did you ever see an abolitionist?”
“No, massa, I reckon I neber did,” was the reply.
“What kind of people do you think they are?”
“Well, massa, I specs dey is a good kind of people.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Case when I hear bad white folks swearing and cussing about ‘em, I reckon dar must be something good about ‘em.”
“Well, my friends, I am an abolitionist; I believe that one man is just as good as another if he behaves as well, and that I have no more right to make a slave of you than you have of me.”
Every hat came off in an instant, and a dozen hands were reached out toward me, and I heard from a dozen tongues a hearty “God bless you, sir!”
There is freedom of speech in Richmond now. White men heard me and scowled. Last Sunday, had I uttered those words, I should have dangled upon the nearest lamp post in five minutes; but today, those men who stretched out their hands to me would have given the last drop of their blood before they would have seen a hair of my head injured, after that declaration.
The Philadelphia Press has a correspondent in the field who writes excellent letters – Mr. J. Morris Chester. He is a tall, stout, muscular, yet unassuming man. He is a black man. Entering the hall of Congress, he sat down in the Speaker’s chair and commenced writing on the Speaker’s desk. A rebel officer who had been paroled entered the room.
“Come out of there, you black cuss,” shouted the officer, his teeth set and his fist clenched.
Mr. Chester raised his eyes, calmly surveyed the officer, and went on with his writing.
“Get out of there or I’ll knock your brains out,” the officer bellowed, pouring out a torrent of oaths.
Mr. Chester did not move. The officer rushed up the steps to seize him by the collar, but found himself tumbling heels over head over chairs and benches, knocked down by one well planted blow between his eyes, which Mr. Chester had given.
Mr. Chester said not a word, but sat down and went to writing as if nothing had happened. The officer sprang to his feet and called upon Capt. Hutchins of Gen. Devens’s staff for a sword.
“I’ll cut the fellow’s heart out,” said he.
“O, no; I guess not. I won’t let you have my sword for any such purpose. If you want to fight Mr. Chester, I will clear a space here and see that you have fair play, but let me tell you that you will get a tremendous thrashing,” said Captain Hutchins.
The officer left the hall in disgust, while Mr. Chester continued his writing. “I thought I would exercise my rights as a belligerent,” was his remark as he told me the story, which is fully confirmed by Captain Hutchins.
This happened in Richmond, in the hall of Congress, where society, politicians, ministers, women and all believe that colored men have no rights which a white man is bound to respect. What sacrilege it was for Mr. Chester to enter the Capitol – the hall – and sit in that chair where Jeff. Davis sat when he visited the Senate! The incident shows how fast and how far we have advanced toward universal human brotherhood during the four years of the war.
The fire which licked out with forked tongues of flame the heart of Richmond on Monday last, which surged from James river to the Capitol, from Belle Isle to Rockets, which made the place a scene of indescribable desolation, left the Libby Prison unharmed, though nearly all the other buildings around it were burned.
Libby Prison! What horrors have been witnessed within its walls! What sighs and groans! What prayers and tears! What dying out of hope and wasting away of body and mind! What nights of darkness settling on human souls! Its door an entrance to a living charnal house – its iron-grated windows the loop-holes of hell! Death was the warden. Whoever entered there stood on the verge of the grave and met death face to face.
This morning, accompanied by friends, I visited the prison, which now contains about five hundred rebel prisoners. They were peeping out from the grated windows – looking intently and sadly upon the scene of desolation around them – a city in ruins – still smouldering and smoking. A large number were upon the roof, breathing the fresh air, and gazing upon the fields beyond the James, green now with the verdure of spring. Union prisoners never had such liberty. Whoever approached the window bars or laid his hand upon them, fell dead the next instant.
There was a crowd of women with pails and buckets at the windows, giving the prisoners provisions and talking freely with their friends, who came not only to the windows but to the door, where the good-natured sentinel allowed conversation without restriction.
The officer in charge conducted our party through the wards. The crowd of filthy wretches gazed upon us with curiosity, wondering what was the purpose of our visit. The air was fetid with vile odors, arising from the unwashed crowd – from old rags and filthy garments – from choked-up urinals and sinks – from the puddle of filthy water which oozed from the leaky conductors, dripped through the floor, ran down the walls, sickening to all the senses. From this prison, on Sunday last, fifteen hundred men were hurried ot the flag of truce boat, that they might be exchanged before falling into our hands. Many thousands of men have lived there month after month, wasting away, starving, dying of fever, of consumption, of all diseases known to medical science – from insanity, despair and idiocy – having no communication with the outer world, no food from friends, no sympathy, no compassion – denied everything, starved to death, tortured to death by rigor of imprisonment; by men whose hearts grew harder from day to day till they became fiends in human form.
“Please give me a bit of bread, aunty, I am starving,” was the plea made one day by a young soldier who saw a negro woman passing the window. He thrust his emaciated hand between the bars and clutched the bit which the kind-hearted colored woman cheerfully gave him; but before it had passed between his teeth, he saw the brains of his benefactress spattered upon the sidewalk by the sentinel!
Where on the page of history is there such a damning record of crime as that written in Richmond – at Libby, at Belle Isle, at Castle Thunder, the jail and the penitentiary? Andersonville, and Salisbury, and Millen are parts of the Richmond record of crime – for all orders were issued from here.
At the jail, Major Stevens, the Provost Marshal, found a crowd of starving wretches – men, women, and children, blacks and whites, incarcerated for petty crimes.
“What are you in here for?” he asked of a little girl.
“For stealing a piece of bread, sir. I was hungry and my mother was starving,” she replied, the tears starting down her cheeks.
Major Stevens ascertained that nearly all were imprisoned for petty offences – driven to crime by necessity – and opening the door, told them to go where they pleased.
Barbarity and inhumanity are characteristics of slavery – which have shown themselves on the plantation, in the slave-mart and in the prison – to slaves and prisoners of war alike.
“I intend to treat the prisoners well. They have murdered our men, but I shall not retaliate except with kindness,” said the officer who conducted us.
The prisoners were playing cards, cooking their breakfasts, baking hoe cakes by the fire.
It was gratifying to see the flag of the Union floating oer that accursed prison-house, with the soldiers of the Union pacing their beats before the doors – to see the motley crowd peeping from the iron-barred windows. It was not a feeling of resentment, but of satisfaction that at last there was an end to human torure on that spot; that it should be no longer the prison-house of despair.
How strange the action of the rebel leaders! They burned the tobacco warehouses, that the tobacco might not fall into our hands; they destroyed the city wantonly, reducing their best friends from affluence to poverty, and yet suffered Libby prison to remain a monument of their infamy! They were anxious that it should not be destroyed, as I am informed by Capt. Stewart, who has been the United States agent for the distribution of supplies at this place.
Like the Bridge of Sighs, it will be a memorable place – forever an object of interest, waking harrowing feelings and melancholy thoughts in the minds of all visitors to Richmond. The great lock of its largest door has passed into the hands of Senator Sumner, who arrived here to-day, accompanying Mr. Lincoln.
Charles Sumner in Richmond! The hated, despised, maltreated fanatic of other days, whose life was sought, who was received only with haughty, insolent contempt from his compeers in the Senate of the United States, walked the streets of Richmond to-day, entered the Capitol of the Confederacy, while ex-Senators Mason, Hunter, Breckinridge, Benjamin and Davis are fugitives. It is not Senator Sumner who has triumphed. Men are God’s instruments. Justice and righteousness have won the mighty victory.