Nothing is every cut and dry. No issue can ever be labeled in direct, easy terms. There’s a little shade of gray in every conflict. The deeper I delve into Civil War history, the more that becomes VERY apparent, especially on the controversial issue of slavery. While we can read about the views and platforms of the politicians of the time, I think it’s far more interesting to find out exactly how the people felt toward the question of slavery and equal rights. Here’s one such view on the concept of abolition from a soldier writing a letter.
John E. Kimball was mustered into Co. B, 1st Massachusetts Infantry on 23 May 1861. He later accepted a commission as a lieutenant in the 3d North Carolina Colored Volunteers (afterwards the 37th USCT) in 1864; later breveted a Captain in March 1865. He remained in the service until January 1867.
According to an obituary record, Joseph E. Kimball participated in 37 battles during the war, including First Bull Run, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Fair Oaks Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and Appomattox. For his bravery in the Battle of New Market Heights, he was breveted for gallant conduct. He died in 1896 at the age of 56. The inscription on his monument in the Mount Vernon Cemetery, Abington, Mass, reads:
“One Who Never Turned His Back,
But Marched Breast Forward;
Never Doubted Clouds Would Break;
Never Dreamed, Tho’ Right Were Worsted,
Wrong Would Triumph…
Held We fall To Rise,
Are Baffled To Fight Better,
Sleep To Wake.”
Addressed to Rev. J. C. Kimball, Beverly, Massachusetts
Hampton Hospital [near Fortress Monroe]
September 30, 1862
Your letter of the 23rd inst. has been duly received. I dispatched you a few lines the day I received your box stating that it came safely and tendering you and those other generous contributors the grateful thanks of myself and comrades. We are still enjoying the fruits of your kindness and it is doing us much good. I don’t think all of the pamphlets which you send me reach here. I got the [ ] you sent—also some papers, but no sermons. The money also came safely.
I don’t know that my principles have undergone such a great change in relation to slavery. I am only disgusted with that Radical Party where every movement since the opening of the Rebellion has been to make the restoration of the Union second to the liberation of the negroes and the carrying out of their own pet schemes. Do not tell I got this idea from the New York Herald—your own writings betray it. Why are you so slow to acknowledge the merits of Gen. McClellan in victory and so ready to overthrow him in defeat? If you would displace him, who would you put in his place? Is there any other in the list of generals who is more capable? Is [John Charles] Fremont’s experience in Missouri and the Shenandoah more serious than McClellan’s in Virginia and Maryland? Have [James Samuel] Wasdsworth and [David] Hunter higher claims? If so, where are they? Do you wish to experiment again with lesser generals? [John] Pope’s experience has been too bitter for you to attempt it again. Would not McClellan be quite good enough if he were an abolitionist? Can you better McClellan’s plan of disposition of troops as were noticed in the late battles in Maryland. Could Fremont do better or as well? If McClellan is only an ordinary general, then we have only ordinary ones. So we may as well be content. An ordinary general may do much with a united government to back him, while a great general would utterly fail with a powerful faction opposing him.
President Lincoln has issued his Emancipation Proclamation. It is hard to say whether its results will be of good or evil. At any rate, the People should be a unit in supporting him. Those who have the good of the Union at heart must feel that as the Proclamation has gone forth, they have no other course open but to use every means to strengthen the government in order that it may be effective. Much of its result will depend upon the progress of our armies between this and the first of January. Of course, it will greatly intensify the struggle.
I am not opposed to abolition. I speak of the ultra abolitionists because they are the Rule or Ruin Party. Do you not see the great importance of the People being a unit in order to crush out this Rebellion? Are there no tens and hundreds of thousands of good loyal people in the North who are opposed from purist principles to prevent Negro emancipation? Having arrived at this conclusion, how can they cordially aid you in carrying out your ultra ideas any more than you could relinquish yours to aid the opposite ultra’s in carrying out theirs? But there is a ground on which all can meet. It is aiding—not embarrassing—the government in carrying out its own measure.
The present government is as of your own choice and you ought to trust its ability and [ ] of purpose. If President Lincoln says emancipation, let the people be a unit in supporting him. I think President Lincoln desires to execute the will of the People. I think he has striven to act so as to keep them united. In his delay in issuing the late proclamation, I think he has adopted its policy and the approval of the majority of the People. It is all twiddle about our inability to crush the rebellion without interfering with slavery. Let us have united will and action and we must either crush it or acknowledge ourselves cowards and imbeciles. It is the fault of this faction who have left no means untried to thrust this one idea of slave emancipation upon the President, thereby embarrassing the government which has so long prolonged the struggle. They would displace the greatest chief of our armies today solely on account of party. If this is the talk of the New York Herald, then the Herald is right. Why do you cling to Fremont? What is there on his career which is so brilliant and promising? He has not the claim of nine tenths of the junior Brigadiers. I pray God the opposite party will not give the government the trouble which you have given them in the past, now the President is adopting measures to which they have been opposed.
I may understand the affairs of state but poorly, but I think we have all seen enough in the past to lay aside the party schemes and devote all our energies to strengthen the government. If sir, we don’t act just as you would like, it is far better to strengthen him as far as he goes than to make a division.
I have heard of the animosity which Charles Sumner has towards [our] Col. [Robert] Cowdin. I heard it from the lips of Col. Cowdin. He had the effrontery when we were encamped at Camp Banks, Georgetown, to request Col. Cowdin to resign. Lucky for him at the time that we did not know it for if we had, we would most assuredly have kicked him from camp. I have heard Col. Cowdin [say] many times that Charles Sumner, and [Gov. John A.] Andrew were intriguing against him. Look at the disgraceful intrigues of J____ & Andrew to displace him before he left Massachusetts. Hawker has recommended Cowdin for a Brigadier. Sumner wouldn’t have made a very strenuous effort to second it without succeeding. Don’t say anything about Sumner or Andrew to any of the “Armed Mob.”
I received your anti-slavery sermon—it is very fine.
I shall go to my regiment this week. Direct your next letter there. Please enclose in your letter two more dollars in Boston money as before. I may need the money much when I get to the regiment to purchase me some articles as I presume my knapsack is lost.
I have heard it said that the soldiers are not allowed to write home from the army. This is rather hard times if it is so, but we must put up with it. You however can write to me. I feel strong now and am anxious to get back to the ranks. The wine you sent me has done me a great deal of good. I shall keep one bottle to carry with me—also some preserves. I am very thankful, dear brother, for what you have done for me. I have had a rather hard time here—much more so than I would have acknowledged before. But is is quite over now and I find myself in good trim to stand another twelve months or more. I have been fortunate that perhaps I may safely survive the struggle. [ ] has serious whims. I have been deluded many times during the last six months when I regarded the chances of my getting out safe as pretty slim. But somehow when my comrades have been shot down by my side, I have come off with scarce a scratch.
A very dear comrade of mine—one whom I have chummed with throughout the campaign, who was wounded beside me at Williamsburg with a cannon shot and again slightly at “Fair Oaks” has received a very bad wound at [Second] Bull Run [on 29 August 1862]. The ball entered one cheek and came out of the other, fracturing the jaw. I don’t know that he is living now.
Please write so that I can get your letter at the regiment next week enclosing the two dollars.
Direct to J. E. Kimball, Co. B, 1st Mass. via Washington D. C.
Love to Emily, — J. E. K.