Second of two parts.
Budge and Russ Weidman, along with about 30 other volunteers at the National Archives, have been working for 11 years to help transfer little-known letters and reports handwritten during and after the Civil War to microfilm. Their efforts will make thousands of these files more accessible to the public.
Under the leadership of the Weidmans, retirees from West Springfield, the group has finished the military records of the U.S. Colored Troops and other soldiers from California, Colorado, Delaware, Nebraska, Vermont and the District of Columbia. Last month's column dealt with the unexpected discovery of four Abraham Lincoln signatures and notes on military documents and plaintive letters sent by mothers who wanted their sons either out of the Army or released from jail.
The volunteers are now working on the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency created in 1865 to aid refugees of the Civil War, especially newly freed former slaves.
There are hundreds of boxes of records, and many of the reports are a reminder that the transition to freedom was not always smooth.
Many freedmen moved north, particularly to Washington, and needed help with housing, jobs, food, clothing and education for themselves and their children. The bureau was also asked to find spouses, children and siblings who had been sold away from their families decades before.
There was also the issue of legitimizing slave marriages that had not been considered legal until Congress passed an act on July 25, 1866, that said any man and woman who recognized themselves as married before that date were legal spouses. This also meant their children were legitimate.
In the District, the superintendent of marriages for the bureau, the Rev. John Kimball, issued marriage licenses and certificates and forwarded copies of them to the bureau. His records include long lists of couples who wanted certificates and sought to have a ceremony now that they were free. Among them were Charles Curtis and Sarah Stutt of the District, who had married in 1858 without a ceremony and had two children. The minister who remarried them said, "The wife of this man has earned enough at washing to pay for a house and a lot."
Also seeking to be remarried were Andrew Smith and Matilda Miles of Prince George's County, who first had been married by their master 40 years earlier, in 1826. They had nine children.
John Webb and his wife, Harriet Jackson, former slaves from Prince William County, first married in 1841, then had six children. The minister noted in November 1866 that "Webb owns a good house, and his children can read and write."
Famous names also surfaced in the bureau files. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose wife, Mary Custis Lee, owned Arlington House in what is now Arlington National Cemetery, freed dozens of Custis slaves on Dec. 29, 1862. George W.P. Custis, Lee's father-in-law, had made Lee the executor of his will. One of the stipulations was that the Custis slaves be freed within five years of Custis's death. Even as the war continued, and Lee could not return to Arlington House, he honored the terms of the will.
A copy of the Custis slaves' emancipation papers was entered into the bureau files in 1868 along with a letter from the agent in charge of the Freedmen's Village built on the grounds of Arlington House.
Agent J.C. Abeel included a list of seven "names of old and dependent Freedpeople (Late Servants to R.E. Lee) living in vicinity of this Village on land allotted to them by the Lee Estate."
Rations and fuel had been delivered to them from the bureau, and Abeel wanted to know whether he should continue to help them.
The list included Sallie Norris, 78, who was partially blind; Charles Syphax, 78, who was infirm; and Estella Brannin, 60, who had rheumatism.
If Abeel ever got an answer, it wasn't included in the records at the archives.
Budge Weidman keeps copies of what she calls "gems," referring to special finds within all the archive records her group has prepared. On her desk is a copy of a photograph of Edmund Delaney of Brownsville, Tex., who served with the U.S. Colored Troops. The 8-by-10-inch print was made from an inexpensive, business-card-sized photo popular during and after the Civil War called a carte de visite.
Delaney, a handsome man, stares into the camera, one hand on his hip and the other resting on a shelf. He seems supremely confident.
His photo was never meant to be a part of any archives files. Delaney had sent it to his former owner, Harvey Graves of Kentucky, with a request to pass it along to John, an old friend of Delaney's.
Instead, Graves used the image to bolster his application to the federal government for a reimbursement of $300 for allowing Delaney to enter the Union Army. Slave owners in the border states were allowed to apply for compensation when a slave joined the service.
"This owner wasn't a nice guy," Weidman said. "He never gave the picture to John -- he applied for and got the $300 and never told Edmund about it. But because of him, we now have this photo."
Researching Old Hospital
For those interested in researching Civil War veterans, and sailors in particular, Friends of the Old Naval Hospital has created a virtual library at www.oldnavalhospital.org that is devoted to the history of the now neglected and vacant Capitol Hill building. The hospital wasn't completed until 1866, a year after the war ended, but veterans were treated there between 1866 and 1906.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.