1865 July 1: Address of the Colored Freedmen from Richmond
From The Prescott Journal of July 1, 1865. This article is a reporting of the meeting between members of the Richmond Union League—a black grievance committee—and U.S. President Andrew Johnson; it is not an exact printing of the address. For more on this, see the Encyclopedia Virginia article on “The Richmond Freedmen” (accessed July 1, 2015).
Address of the Colored Freedmen from Richmond.
WASHINGTON, June 16, 1865.—In accordance with a resolution passed at a meeting of colored people in Richmond, a delegation of colored men waited upon the President to-day, and were received by him with kindness and attention. The object of the delegation, like that of the meeting, was to make known to the President, and through the press, to the country, certain grievances which the freedmen of Richmond allege they are suffering from a collision between the military and civil authorities. The members of the delegation were instructed by Mr. Van Vleet, President of the Richmond Union League, and one of their number, named Chester, read the President an address, in which was set forth a list of their sufferings, chief of which was the interference of the provost guard and local police with the liberty of colored men. After stating that they represented men of wealth from the sum of two hundred dollars to twenty thousand dollars, and that had ever been loyal, serving the Union forces as scouts and guides, and after a recapitulation of the services of colored men in the armies of the United States, the address—written, not by a negro, but by Mr. Van Vleet—went on to say how disappointed the people of the South felt of the issue to them of the war. The address also states that the position of the colored people is worse than it was when they were slaves and living under slave law. It states that under the old system they had the protection of their masters, “who were financially interested in their physical welfare. But their old masters,” continues the address, “have become their enemies, and are seeking, not only to oppress them, but to thwart the designs of the federal government.” They claim that they cannot appeal to the laws of Virginia for protection ; for the old negro laws still prevail, and, worse still, as they claim, the oath of a colored man against a white man will not be received in the courts ; so that they have nowhere to go for protection, and hence apply to the President, or, as they say, “to the power that set them free.” The address next complains of the difficulties they are experiencing in regard to their church property, which are two-fold. In the first place, by the laws of Virginia, colored churches were compelled to accept of white preachers devoted to Southern institutions ; in the second place, their church property, according to the law there, must be dedicated to white trustees. They say the first evil may, perhaps, be remedied in time ; but “how to get possession of their own church property passeth their understanding.” From this they pass to more practical grievances, saying : “In the city of Richmond the military and police authorities will not allow us to walk the streets by day or night in the regular pursuit of our business or on our way to church, without a pass, and passes do not in all cases protect us from arrest, abuse, violence and imprisonment.” They add that the police, in conjunction with the provost guard, have taken them from their workshops and dwellings and put them into prison simply because they had no passes, and that even if they had passes the guards would not recognize them as genuine or sufficient. They state, too, that many a husband whose wife had been sold from him under the old system, and many a wife who had lost her husband in the same way, has come to Richmond searching for the missing one, and been placed in jail for lack of passes, whose necessity they were not apprised of. They further assert as a grievance that a few days ago General Gregg,³ whose headquarters are at Lynchburg, published an order to the freedmen, in which he told them they “have all the rights that free people of color have heretofore had in Virginia, and no more.” They add that they were sorry to see this announcement, because they “supposed that the recent freedmen were a class of persons unknown to the laws of Virginia or of any other State, and that they were subject only to special acts of Congressional enactment. Of the reinstatement of Mayor Mayo³ the address complains most bitterly. They charge him with original and continuous rebellion, and after dwelling on the fact that he was the man who used to order them to the whipping post, they remark that his now restored police is composed of the men who used to inflict the stripes on “our quivering flesh.” They add, “in justice to Governor Pierpoint [Francis H. Pierpont], “that he has been their friend,” and “has sorrowed over the re-appointment of Mayo, and they (or rather Mr. Van Vleet) conclude the address by reminding the President of that sublime motto once inscribed over the portals of an Egyptian temple—‘Know all ye who exercise power that God hates injustice.'” The address is signed by Fields Cook, Richard Welles, Wm. Williamson, W. J. Snead, and T. M. Chester.4
THE PRESIDENT’S REPLY TO THE ADDRESS.
The reading of the address being concluded, the President called for one of the city papers, and read to them the dismissal of Mayo from office, and then said : “While you are in this state of transition, there are many things which we might prefer to be different—that we should like altered—that yet must be submitted to till they can be remedied. Whatever can be done, so far as I am concerned, will be done most cheerfully. I have no set speech to make to you. If my past has not been a sufficient guarantee of my future course on this subject, my professions now would be none. I will endorse this document, ‘a series of depositions to prove arrests by Mayo and provost guards,’ to Major General Howard, and you can take it to him yourselves. Why did you not apply to General Halleck ? [O. O. Howard, Henry W. Halleck]
To this Fields answered that they had applied to Gen. Patrick5 ; but he had told them he was acting under orders, and did not wish to be dictated to. They had applied to Governor Pierpont and he had sent for Mayo, and deposed him the next day.
The President then remarked that Governor Pierpont was there without any law to guide him, and he should adapt himself to the necessities of the occasion.
The delegation then proceeded to the Freedmen’s Bureau, on I street, and on their way emphatically stated that Mr. Johnson was “not like Uncle Abe” [Abraham Lincoln]. Whether they admired him for what they found different in him, they did not say.
1. The Richmond Union League was a black grievance committee organized on July 8, 1865, in Richmond, Virginia. Nothing seems to be known about Mr. Van Vleet.
2. Joseph Mayo (1795-1872), was the commonwealth attorney for Richmond for 30 years, served in the Virginia legislature, was elected and served as the mayor of Richmond (1853-65 and 1866-68). He left office after surrendering Richmond on April 8, 1865, but was reinstated by Governor Pierpont.
3. Gregg resigned his commission in January of 1865, so this was no doubt someone else. David McMurtrie Gregg (1833-1916), however, graduated from West Point in 1855 and was a career military officer. At the start of the Civil War, Gregg was promoted to captain in the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, followed by a transfer to the 6th U.S. Cavalry. He developed typhoid fever and barely escaped death when his Washington hospital caught fire. In January 1862 he became colonel of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which fought in the Peninsula Campaign. Gregg was promoted to brigadier general just before the Battle of Fredericksburg. He participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Gettysburg Campaign, the Overland Campaign, the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and the battles of Deep Bottom, Second Ream’s Station, and Peebles’ Farm. He was promoted to the brevet rank of major general. He resigned his commission in a letter dated January 25, 1865, and missed the Appomattox Campaign and the ending of the War.
4. This is what is known of these men:
- Fields Cook (1817-1897) was born into slavery and manumitted in 1853. He was a Republican Party leader, one of the first blacks to serve on a grand jury, and ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress in 1869. He was a property owner and a jack-of-all trades, working as a waiter (1860 census), barber, and Baptist minister (1880 census).
- Richard Welles (ca. 1829-1903), was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Richmond.
- William Williamson (ca. 1820-1883) was a barber.
- William or Walter J. Snead. William J. was a physician; Walter J. was a cigar maker.
Thomas Morris Chester (1834-1892) was a journalist, the first African-American to cover the Civil War in the field for a major American daily newspaper. Well-education, by the time he was 30 he had been to Liberia, taught school there, and launched a newspaper in Liberia’s capital (Monrovia). He was a public speaker of considerable power—probably why he was chosen to read the address to President Johnson—and used that gift to recruit blacks to serve as soldiers for the 55th Massachusetts Infantry. In 1864 the Philadelphia Press commissioned Chester to cover the activities of black troops on the Virginia front. The only black correspondent for a major daily during the Civil War, Chester joined the Army of the Potomac in the field and covered the crucial final year of the war around Richmond. His dispatches constitute the most sustained and extensive first-hand account of black soldiers in existence. As the war came to a close, Chester richly described the responses of Confederate troops and civilians to encounters with black soldiers, as he joined the black troops of the 25th Army Corps as they led the victorious Union forces into Richmond. After the War, he moved to England and became a lawyer; after returning to the U.S. he was admitted to practice law before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1881. He moved to Louisiana and was appointed customs house clerk, and also served as superintendent of public education.
Chester’s dispatches from the Army of the Potomac in the final years of the war have been collected into a book entitled Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent, edited by R.J.M. Blackett.
The New-York Tribune’s article about this, published on June 17, 1865, adds to the list of signers:
- Peter Woolfolk. A Peter H. Woolfolk worked in a variety of jobs in Richmond, as a clerk, teacher, and plumber.
- Nelson Hamilton. (unable to identify)
5. Marsena Rudolph Patrick (1811-1888) graduated from West Point in 1835, served in the Mexican War, and resigned in 1850. In 1859, Patrick was appointed president of the New York State Agricultural College, serving in that role for two years. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Patrick enlisted in the New York state militia as inspector general. In March 1862, Patrick was appointed as a brigadier general of Volunteers, and a month later was appointed military governor of Fredericksburg. In the Maryland Campaign (September 1862), his brigade suffered hundreds of casualties at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. On October 6, 1862, he was named provost marshal for the Army of the Potomac and commanded an equivalent of a brigade of troops.
Patrick tried vainly to stop vengeful Union soldiers from sacking and looting Fredericksburg in November, and had to fend off political officials who placed the blame on him, including numerous inquiries from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Nevertheless, Patrick continued in the role of provost marshal throughout 1863. New army commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker had Patrick create the Bureau of Military Information, a network of intelligence agents. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Patrick oversaw the processing of thousands of Confederate prisoners of war. In early 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant arrived in the Eastern Theater and assumed authority over multiple armies, Patrick was elevated to provost marshal for the combined forces operating against Richmond, Virginia. After Lee surrendered in April 1865, Patrick was the provost of the District of Henrico in the Department of Virginia. He resigned from the Army on June 12, 1865.