A Volunteer’s Adventures: A Union Captain’s Record of the Civil War
By John William DeForest
The diaspora that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was not the first time New Orleans residents have been dislocated. In 1862 a tidal wave of black refugees washed through the Crescent City, too—a cataclysm no one was prepared for, largely because whites refused to believe that slaves possessed the ability to act upon their own interests. Most African Americans abandoned their masters once Federal troops arrived, surging over what many had considered to be the insurmountable levee of slavery, and headed for Union camps.
John William DeForest, an officer in the 12th Connecticut Volunteers, was astonished to see African Americans asserting their rights. In A Volunteer’s Adventures: A Union Captain’s Record of the Civil War, DeForest offers a brilliant commentary on the collapse of plantation society in Louisiana and Virginia. His beautifully written letters describe blacks seeking liberation and Federals inflicting hard war on the Confederacy—revolutionary actions that initiated a second diaspora across the South and resulted in the dispersion of white civilians.
DeForest was not enthused at the idea of slaves emancipating themselves but generally sympathized with freed people. “As to the Negroes,” he wrote on July 13, 1862, “they are all on our side, although thus far they are mainly a burden.” His brigade’s provost officer, who had to provide for more than 700 freed people on the unit’s rolls, re – marked that the army should ship them to the “coast of Guinea.”
Additional problems arose when officers hired former slaves as camp servants, since they often left as soon as they received hard wages—convincing many Northerners that blacks were an “unreliable” labor force. But freed people sought autonomy from white control above all, and by selling their labor on a part-time basis they could return home.
DeForest also captured the grinding routine of soldiering with amazing literary grace. “We reeled, crawled, and almost rolled toward Alexandria,” he wrote of a forced march. “As night fell, the pace increased….But in the last two miles…a silence of despair descended upon us, and then the regiments melted like frost in sunshine.”
DeForest ended the war under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, having served in both Eastern and Western theaters. He fought against Confederate armies as well as a Southern society that gave cause and comfort to his enemies in the field.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.